The reputation the Saint Peter’s Basilica (full name, Papal Basilica of Saint Peter) enjoys throughout Christendom is grounded in two references: it is deemed the most sacred hub of Christianity (Catholicism, in particular) and, at the same time, a receptacle of some of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque treasures. It is one of the four major basilicas of Rome (implicitly, one of the seven pilgrimage churches of the capital), but it does not outrank, for instance, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. Nevertheless, its reputation exceeds the fame and chiefdom of all the other churches in Rome (and in Vatican, for that matter).

First of all, the basilica, as tradition maintains, was built on the very site where Saint Peter, first bishop of Rome and, in retrospect, founder of the institution of papacy, was crucified and then buried, in the former Circus of Nero, in the year 64 AD. It was Emperor Constantine the one who commissioned the construction of a basilica on top of the holy martyrdom site (now filled by the glorious Piazza San Pietro), between 319 and 333 (the tomb of Saint Peter is, as the same tradition maintains, located precisely underneath the altar). Yet, the present basilica is the result of the construction, restoration and decoration works carried out between the early 16th and the first half of the 17th century (between 1506 and 1626), as a result of the fact Constantine’s edifice eventually collapsed after a millennium or so of existence.

The reconstruction of the basilica under Pops Julius, Paul III, Sixtus V, Gregory XIV and Clement VII, in a period of 120 years, brought a series of changes in regard to both the architects commissioned to design the basilica and to the projects each of them envisaged. Some of the most brilliant architectural minds of the century were brought in to contribute to the task, and even if Michelangelo is most of the times associated with the paternity of the project, in truth plenty others left their mark (more or less visible) on the edifice. Thus, the first architect designated was Donato Bramante, followed by Juliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael. Their work was continued by Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo and, eventually, Giacomo della Porta and Fontana.

Regardless of the disparities between the projects each of these architects envisaged, the bottom line is the current Saint Peter’s Basilica is, first of all, the largest Christian place of worship in the world and, secondly, one of the greatest achievements of (mostly) Renaissance architecture. The striking opulence of decorations, the massiveness of the interior and of its dome, the fact the Vatican Grotto shelters more than 100 tombs and relics (including the alleged tomb of Saint Peter and tens of papal tombs), not to mention the basilica’s location in the monumental Piazza di San Pietro, all these turn the basilica into one of the top attractions of Rome (and Vatican).

One of the most interesting highlights to admire is, for instance, Michelangelo’s Pieta, a masterpiece which is but a fragment of the artist’s contribution to the basilica (this one is located in the first chapel in the nave on the right of the basilica). Visitors must also keep in mind the much celebrated dome of the basilica is also the work of the great Florentine.

Bernini is yet another artist who contributed to the basilica’s patrimony. One of his works here refers to the tomb of Pope Alexander VII, a Baroque monumental masterpiece outstanding by its artistry and by the four allegorical sculptures of which two represent Truth and Charity. The tomb is located in a niche above a doorway in the south aisle of the basilica. In the north aisle there is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament where visitors can admire Bernini’s tabernacle. The baldachin above the high altar is also the work of Bernini.

The already overwhelming treasures of the basilica are complemented by a bronze door designed by Antonio Averulino (in one of the portals in the narthex) in 1455 in a splendid Renaissance style. Two other eye-catching doors in the narthex are the Holy Door (a 1950 work by Vico Consorti) and the Door of the Dead (it too a recent acquisition of the basilica, work by Giacomo Manzu realized in the 20th century). The nave is, it too, pegged out by several notable masterpieces. Of these, Canova’s statue rendering a kneeling Pope Pius VI, and the statues of Saint Helena (by Andrea Bolgi), of Saint Longinus (by Bernini), of Saint Andrew (by Francois Duquesnoy) and Saint Veronica (by Francesco Mochi), each placed in the several niches which adorn the piers on which the dome rests, are of special interest.

Last, but not least, the facade of the church must be mentioned. This is one of the elements which gave rise to most debates, being largely deemed by connoisseurs the greatest architectural fault of the edifice. It was designed by Maderno and built between 1608 and 1614, and while, like the rest of the church, it overwhelms by its grandeur, monumentality and density of decorative details, it is roughly deemed a failure in regard to the lack of coherence between it and the rest of the edifice (too wide, too heavy, and even too replete with decorations). All in all, the facade lives up to most of the visitors’ expectations, yielding an architectural spectacle of special magnificence: a row of massive Corinthian columns overtopped by a robust attic at its turn dominated by the statues of Christ (in the center) flanked by 11 of its apostles and by Saint John the Baptist (the missing apostle is Saint Peter, whose statue is located on the left side of the stairs, the right side being filled by Saint Paul’s statue).

A visit to the basilica’s Treasury is also worth making. This is a genuine treasure trove of reliquaries, copes and chalices. Visits to the Vatican Necropolis (underneath the basilica, referring to the area which surrounds the tomb of Saint Peter) are possible, but reservations are necessary in this respect.

Saint Peter’s Basilica (Basilica Papale San Pietro)
Piazza San Pietro, 00186, Vatican
0039 06 69883731