Formally known by the name Basilica di San Pietro, St. Peter’s Basilica is one of Rome’s foremost tourist attractions. This one site alone has enough to see to occupy an entire day or more. St. Peter’s is among the most well-known and frequently visited buildings inside Vatican City.
Though legend has it that the site was the burial place of Saint Peter, there’s slim evidence for the belief. Rather, it is sited on what was likely the 1st century Circus of Nero.
In the 4th century AD the early Christian Roman Emperor Constantine ordered construction of a basilica which preceded the more famous effort by a thousand years.
In the early 16th century, Pope Leo X raised the needed funds by appealing to the zealous in favor of a holy war against the turks, but diverted the funds to construction of St. Peter’s basilica.
Like any large construction project of the period, it went through several architects and Popes before being completed in the late 16th century.
The building is high for the period, over 135m (445ft) from floor level to the top of the cross, topped by the famous dome. The dome, which is an important element of the skyline of Rome, is an architectural marvel inside and out. Designed by the great Renaissance artist and chief architect Michaelangelo, it was adapted from a double-shell design by San Gallo.
Though the master became chief architect in 1546, he didn’t live to see it completed. After his death the work was taken up by his student, Giacomo della Porta and completed in 1590. Echoes of the design can be seen in many famous structures, including the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
The dome held fast for two hundred years when stress cracks appeared, prompting the installation of four giant iron chains attached to the interior of the pair of shells. The chains are partly visible by climbing the spiral stairs between the two dome shells.
But there is much more to St. Peter’s Basilica than its famous dome. The building is immense, covering almost six acres and capable of holding over 60,000 people. Which it has done on more than one occasion. Many Papal ceremonies have been held there over the centuries.
The facade is almost 115m (377ft) wide and over 45m (148ft) high and there are several statuary adorning the exterior.
Within its walls are over 100 tombs, many of which are occupied by well known historical figures. Not least among them is Queen Christina of Sweden who abdicated her crown in 1654 in order to be free to convert to Catholicism.
Unquestionably, however, one of the most famous and important works in the interior is Michaelangelo’s Pieta, walled off by glass after being attacked by a lunatic with an axe in 1972.
Outside, apart from the view of the dome, there are several notable historical works to view.
There are several ancient clocks and one has a bell dating from the late 13th century. An Egyptian obelisk from the 13th century BC which once stood outside Nero’s Circus is nearby.
Two fountains occupy the square. The one to the south is a design by the outstanding artist, Bernini, who created it in 1675. Bernini was also responsible for the stellar Triumph of the Chair of Saint Peter at the apse of the church.
Few can visit Rome without spending at least a few hours roaming within and around this outstanding example of Renaissance architecture.