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St. Peter's See also Piazza of St. Peter's


Giacomo della Porta with Michelangelo  Facade Designed by Carlo Maderno, 1608-1614


Vatican City, surrounded by Rome, Italy


1546 to 1564 and 1590


Italian Rennaisance




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The Basilica of Saint Peter from Castel Sant'Angelo. The basilica is perhaps the largest church in Christianity and is often used by the Pope.

The Basilica of Saint Peter from Castel Sant'Angelo. The basilica is perhaps the largest church in Christianity and is often used by the Pope.

The Basilica of Saint Peter, portrayed by Viviano Codazzi in a 1630 painting. Note the two bell towers, later removed.

The Basilica of Saint Peter, portrayed by Viviano Codazzi in a 1630 painting. Note the two bell towers, later removed.

The Basilica of Saint Peter, officially known in Italian as the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano and colloquially called Saint Peter's Basilica, ranks second among the four major basilicas of Rome (San Giovanni in Laterano, San Pietro, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paulo) and its Vatican City enclave. Possibly the largest church in Christianity, it covers an area of 5.7 acres (23,000 m²) and has a capacity of over 60,000 people. One of the holiest sites of Christendom, it is traditionally the burial site of basilica namesake Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, first Bishop of Antioch, and later first Bishop of Rome. Although the New Testament does not mention Peter either in Rome, or martyred there, a very old tradition holds that his tomb is below the baldachino and altar; for this reason, many Popes, starting with the first ones, have been buried there. Construction on the current basilica began on April 18, 1506 and was completed in 1626, and was built over the Constantinian basilica.[1]

Although the Vatican basilica is not the Pope's official ecclesiastical seat (Saint John Lateran), it is most certainly his principal church, as most Papal ceremonies take place at St Peter's due to its size, proximity to the Papal residence, and location within the Vatican City walls. The basilica also holds a relic of the Cathedra Petri, the episcopal throne of the basilica's namesake when he led the Roman church, but which is no longer used as the Papal cathedra. It is believed that a piece of this cathedra, or chair, is contained within the altarpiece, designed by Bernini'


Burial site of St Peter
main article: Saint Peter

St Peter's Basilica according to tradition is built at the site of Peter's crucifixion, and beneath the main altar there is an altar dedicated to St Peter. Recent excavations have discovered a burial chamber even deeper beneath this altar where one skeleton, which was missing its feet, was interred with special honor. Some archeologists propose that these are the actual remains of Saint Peter, supposing that after dying by crucifixion (upside down according to tradition), his feet were cut off to remove him from the cross. They also cite, among other things, the age of the deceased (60–70, which would be consistent with Peter's age), and the fact that a piece of plaster which had come off the marble-lined repository in which the bones were supposedly buried bore the Greek inscription PETROS ENI, "Peter is within", though it could also mean "The rock is inside".

The approach to St Peter's Basilica.
The approach to St Peter's Basilica.

St Peter's Square
Directly to the east of the church is St Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro), built between 1656 and 1667. It is surrounded by an elliptical colonnade with two pairs of Doric columns which form its breadth, each bearing Ionic entablatures. This is an excellent example of Baroque architecture, where creativity is coupled with flexible guidelines. In the center of the colonnade, which was designed by Bernini, is a 25.5 metres (83.6 ft) tall obelisk. The obelisk was moved to its present location in 1585 by order of Pope Sixtus V. The obelisk dates back to the 13th century BC in Egypt, and was moved to Rome in the 1st century to stand in Nero's Circus some 250 metres (820 ft) away. Including the cross on top and the base the obelisk reaches 40 metres (131 ft). On top of the obelisk there used to be a large bronze globe allegedly containing the ashes of Julius Caesar. This was removed when the obelisk was erected in St Peter's Square. There are also two fountains in the square, the north one by Maderno (1613) and the southern one by Bernini (1675).

Latitude 41°54'08"N, Longitude 12°27'26"E

The dome

The dome designed by Michelangelo was completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1590.

The dome designed by Michelangelo was completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1590.

The dome, or cupola, was designed by Michelangelo, who became chief architect in 1546. At the time of his death (1564), the dome was finished as far as the drum, the base on which a dome sits. The dome was vaulted between 1585 and 1590 by the architect Giacomo della Porta with the assistance of Domenico Fontana, who was probably the best engineer of the day. Fontana built the lantern the following year, and the ball was placed in 1593.

A view of Michelangelo's dome
A view of Michelangelo's dome

As built, the double dome is brick, 42.3 metres (138.8 ft) in interior diameter (almost as large as the Pantheon), rising to 120 metres (394 ft) above the floor. In the mid-18th century, cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it, like the rings that keep a barrel from bursting. (Visitors who climb the spiral stairs between the dome shells can glimpse them.) The four piers of the crossing that support it are each 18 metres (59 ft) across. It is not simply its vast scale (136.57 m or 448.06 ft from the floor of the church to the top of the added cross) that makes it extraordinary . Michelangelo's dome is not a hemisphere, but a paraboloid: it has a vertical thrust, which is made more emphatic by the bold ribbing that springs from the paired Corinthian columns, which appear to be part of the drum, but which stand away from it like buttresses, to absorb the outward thrust of the dome's weight. The grand arched openings just visible in the illustration but normally invisible to viewers below, enable access (but not to the public) all around the base of the drum; they are dwarfed by the monumental scale of their surroundings. Above, the vaulted dome rises to Fontana's two-stage lantern, capped with a spire.

The egg-shaped dome exerts less outward thrust than a lower hemispheric one (such as Mansart's at Les Invalides) would have done. The dome conceived by Donato Bramante at the outset in 1503 was planned to be carried out with a single masonry shell, a plan discovered to be infeasible. San Gallo came up with the double shell, and Michelangelo improved upon it. The piers at the crossing, which were the first masonry to be laid, and which were intended to support the original dome, were a constant concern, too slender in Bramante's plan, they were redesigned several times as the dome plans evolved.

Other domes around the world, built since, are always compared to this one which served as model: Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Quebec, St Paul's Cathedral in London, Les Invalides in Paris, United States Capitol in Washington, DC, the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the more literal reproduction at the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, Cote d'Ivoire.

Above the main entrance is the inscription IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII (In honor of the prince of apostles; Paul V, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate).

The façade is 114.69 metres (376.28 ft) wide and 45.55 metres (149.44 ft) high. On top are statues of Christ, John the Baptist, and eleven of the apostles; The statues of St Peter and St Paul are in front of the parvis. Two clocks are on either side of the top, the one on the left has been operated electrically since 1931, its oldest bell dating to 1288.

Between the façade and the interior is the portico. Mainly designed by Maderno, it contains an 18th century statue of Charlemagne by Cornacchini to the south, and an equestrian sculpture of Emperor Constantine by Bernini (1670) to the north. The southernmost door, designed by Giacomo Manzù, is called the "Door of the Dead". The door in the center is by Antonio Averulino (1455), and preserved from the previous basilica.

The northernmost door is the "Holy Door" in bronze by Vico Consorti (1950), which is by tradition, only opened for great celebrations such as Jubilee years. Above it are inscriptions, the top reading PAVLVS V PONT MAX ANNO XIII, and the one just above the door reading GREGORIVS XIII PONT MAX. In between are white slabs commemorating the most recent openings.




In the jubilee year of human redemption 1983-4, John Paul II, Pontifex Maximus, opened and closed again the holy door closed and set apart by Paul VI in 1976. John Paul II, Pontifex Maximus, again opened and closed the holy door in the year of the great jubilee, from the incarnation of the Lord 2000-2001. Paul VI, Pontifex Maximus, opened and closed the holy door of this patriarchal Vatican basilica in the jubilee year of 1975. 

Walking along the right aisle of the basilica, there are several noteworthy monuments and memorials. The first is Michelangelo's Pietà, located immediately to the right of the entrance. After an incident in 1972 when an individual damaged it with an axe, the sculpture was placed behind protective glass. Up the aisle is the monument of Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated in 1654 in order to convert to Catholicism. Further up are the monuments of popes Pius XI and Pius XII, as well as the altar of St Sebastian. Even further up is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is open during religious services only. Inside it is a tabernacle on the altar resembling Bramante's Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio. Bernini sculpted this gilded bronze tabernacle in 1674. The two kneeling angels were added later. Further still are the monuments of popes Gregory XIII (completed in 1723 by Carlo Rusconi) and Gregory XIV.

In the northwestern corner of the nave sits the statue of St Peter Enthroned, attributed to late 13th century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (with some scholars dating it back to the 5th century). The foot of the statue is eroded due to centuries of pilgrims kissing it. Along the floor of the nave are markers with the comparative lengths of other churches, starting from the entrance (not an original detail). Along the pilasters are niches housing 39 statues of saints who founded religious orders.

Walking down the left aisle there is the Altar of Transfiguration. Walking down towards the entrance are the monuments to Leo XI and Innocent XI followed by the Chapel of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. After that come the monuments to Pius X and Innocent VIII, then the monuments to John XXIII and Benedict XV, and the Chapel of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. After that comes the Monument to the Royal Stuarts, directly opposite the one to Maria Clementina Sobieska. Symmetrically, the two monarchs who gave up their thrones for their Catholic faith in the 17th century, are honored side by side in the most important church in Catholicism. Finally, right before the end of the church, is the Baptistry.

The right transept contains three altars, of St Wenceslas, St Processo and St Martiniano, and St Erasmus. The left transept also contains three altars, that of St Peter's Crucifixion, St Joseph and St Thomas. West of the left transept is the monument to Alexander VII by Bernini. A skeleton lifts a fold of red marble drapery and holds an hourglass symbolising the inevitability of death. He is flanked on the right by a statue representing religion, who holds her foot atop a globe, with a thorn piercing her toe from the British Isles, symbolizing the pope's problems with the Church of England.

Over the main altar stands a 30 metres (98 ft) tall baldachin held by four immense pillars, all designed by Bernini between 1624 and 1632. The baldachin was built to fill the space beneath the cupola, and it is said that the bronze used to make it was taken from the Pantheon. The representation of a chair, part of the sculpture, is said to contain the remnants of the chair belonging to Saint Peter (It is also said that it is the largest bronze piece in the world.) Underneath the baldachin is the traditional tomb of St Peter. In the four corners surrounding the baldachin are statues of St Helena (northwest, holding a large cross in her right hand, by Andrea Bolgi), St Longinus (northeast, holding his spear in his right hand, by Bernini in 1639), St Andrew (southeast, spread upon the cross which bears his name, by Francois Duquesnoy) and St Veronica (southwest, holding her veil, by Francesco Mochi). Each of these statues represents a relic associated with the person, respectively, a piece of The Cross, the Spear of Destiny, St Andrew's head (as well as part of his cross) and Veronica's Veil. In 1964, St Andrew's head was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church by the Pope. It should be noted that the Vatican makes no claims as to the authenticity of several of these relics, and in fact other Catholic churches also possess "the same" relics. Along the base of the inside of the dome is written, in letters 2 metres (6.5 ft) high, TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM (Vulgate, from Matthew 16:18-19; " are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven...."). Near the top of the dome is another, smaller, circular inscription: S. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTVS PP. V. A. M. D. XC. PONTIF. V. (To the glory of St Peter; Sixtus V, pope, in the year 1590 and the fifth year of his pontificate).

The Burial of St Petronilla is an altarpiece painted by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercini) in 1623. It simultaneously depicts the burial and the welcoming to heaven of the martyred St Petronilla. The altar is dedicated to the saint, and contains her relics.

At the apse of the church is the Triumph of the Chair of Saint Peter (1666) by Bernini, a focus of the Feast of Cathedra Petri celebrated annually on February 22 in accordance to the calendar of saints. The triumph is topped by a yellow window in which is a dove, portraying the Holy Spirit, surrounded by twelve rays, symbolising the apostles. Beneath it is the bronze encasing of the relic of the chair of St Peter, given to the Vatican from Charles the Bald in 875. To the right of the chair are St Ambrose and St Augustine (fathers of the Latin church), and to the left are St Athanasius and St John Chrysostom (fathers of the Greek church). Further to the right is the monument to Urban VIII, by Bernini, and further to the left is the monument to Paul III.

A frequent confusion due to the similar names is between the basilica and the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (famous for hosting the precious Michelangelo's Moses). The latter is situated on the other side of the Tiber river.

The Guinness Book of Records currently lists Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro - which was largely inspired by St Peter's Basilica - as the largest church, surpassing St Peter's when it was completed in 1989. The validity of this, however, continues to be debated. However, you can fit the Statue of Liberty in the dome where the main altar sits.

The spending on the Basilica prompted dissent from those who would become the initiators of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Leo X had used the promise of a holy war against the Turks to raise money from the jubilee indulgences, and instead used it for building the Basilica. Several people confronted Martin Luther for refusing to recognize the indulgences of Johannes Tetzel, who was dispenser of the indulgences where Luther lived. Therefore, Luther sought to have an academic debate, which he announced by the posting of his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, generally considered the beginning of the Reformation.

With the beginning of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church came back with the Counter Reformation and began commissioning artwork and architecture to use as tools to draw the people back to the fold. Saint Peter’s Basilica became one of these tools, and the architects were fully aware of the goal behind their art. Bernini, when adding the colonnades that extend out to the piazza, said that the colonnades were “like the arms of the Church, which embrace Catholics to reinforce their belief, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and agnostics to enlighten them with the true faith” (Boorsch, 31). This statement made by the architect himself most candidly expresses the reasoning behind the Church finally finishing Saint Peter’s.

Historically, St. Peter’s provides an excellent example of how one art process, one structure, and the society’s definition of acceptable art can change over the course of two centuries. When Bramante designed his version of Saint Peter’s during the Renaissance, his design was a centralized building that “would have united the cross, the square, and the circle to symbolize perfect unity” (Boorsch, 9). During the Renaissance art was many times based on geometry and a balance that would give the viewer the most serene response to the work. Also, the Renaissance was about the rebirth of interest, the revival of interest in the classical. When designing St. Peter’s, Bramante had been looking at previous architecture and had been influenced by other artists. Bramante might have been and probably had been looking at structures such as Alberti’s Sant’ Andrea and Brunelleschi’s Florence Cathedral, Santo Spirito, and Pazzi Chapel. Going even further back than these artists, Bramante was probably most influenced by the Pantheon and its centralized design and dome. This Renaissance centralized plan, though used as a starting point, changed dramatically when Maderno added a nave and Bernini added his colonnades and piazza. Art went from geometric harmony to a tool used to sway people’s opinions and attitudes toward the Church and the Protestant Reformation.

Saint Peter's took two centuries to complete. This was far longer than the construction itself took. The reason for the long time was that popes usually attain their high status at an old age, and so by the time a man was elected to the position of pope, he only had a few years left of his life to do anything. Combine this with the fact that each new pope would pick a new architect, and that architect would have to do unnecessary changes to Bramante’s original plan to make it his own, and finally, by the time all of this was done, construction would begin and shortly thereafter end because of either the pope’s death or the architect’s death.

Notes and references
↑ Inside the Vatican, a National Geographic Television Special

Bannister, Turpin. “The Constantian Basilica of Saint Peter at Rome.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (March 1968) 3-32.

Boorsch, Suzanne. “The Building of the Vatican: The Papacy and Architecture.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Winter 1982) 1-2;4-64.

Finch, Margaret. “The Cantharus and Pigna at Old Saint Peter’s.” Gesta (1991).

Frommel, Christoph. “Papal Policy: The Planning of Rome during the Renaissance.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History. (Summer 1986) 39-65.

McClendon, Charles. “The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.” Perspecta. (1989) 32-65.

Kleiner, Fred and Christin Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective. v2. 12th edition. (Thomas Wadsworth, 2006), 499-500, 571-575.

The Facade

On February 10, 1608 the first stone was laid and on July 21, 1612 most of the work was completed. It took another two years for the ornamentattion.

The inscription (1m high) states: "Paul V Borghese, Roman, Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate, [erected] in honour of the Prince of Apostles".

From the central balcony, called the Loggia of the Blessings, the new pope is announced with "Habemus Papum", and gives the Urbi et Orbi blessing. The relief under the balcony, by Buonvicino, represents Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.

Above the basic structure is an attic, with eight square windows decorated with small pilasters, surmounted by a balustrade and 13 statues in travertine. The statues on the balustrade represent Christ the Redeemer (19 feet high), St. John the Baptist and 11 Apostles. St. Mathias is included because he is associated with the other "Eleven" in bearing witness to Christ's Resurrection

Source: Works On The Facade of St. Peter's Basilica

When Carlo Maderno started to build the facade, he was bound to the already existing Michelangelo's wings. He just put the attic all around the building, as planned by Michelangelo. That creation looks mighty and dynamic along the west side of the Basilica but is disharmonious in the facade. For this reason, at the far sides of the facade, Maderno planned two bell towers which lightened and soared the building. In 1621, at the death of Paul V, the ground subsided and the building of the two bell towers had to be stopped.

In 1646, Bernini tried to erect the bell towers again, but had to demolish the left-hand side bell tower because of cracks in the facade. Only the bases of the bell towers remain, two archways at the sides of the facade that seem to form part of it while they should have been separated. This was remedied in 1790 by the installation of two clocks designed by Giuseppe Valadier. 

The eight gigantic columns of the facade are almost 10ft wide and 90 feet high.

The restoration of the facade and the 13 statues, begun in April 1985, was concluded on November 30, 1986. The original copper cross (1613) in the arms of the statue of the Redeemer, which was replaced by a new one during the work, was given to the Knights of Columbus in recognition of their support for the restoration.

Special thanks to