Built on the site of the martyrdom of Peter the Apostole, Saint Peter’s Basilica stands at the center of the Christian world.
It’s the world’s largest church, situated within the world’s smallest state. But just as much as the size, it’s the splendor that enchants every one of Saint Peter’s visitors.
Great artists such as Michelangelo, Bramante, and Bernini have each left their mark on Saint Peter’s Basilica, renovating the original 4th century basilica built by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great.
Read on to discover Saint Peter’s Basilica’s fascinating history and the figures who have shaped it to become such a global symbol.
Saint Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world and the main of the Rome's four major basilicas, was originally built in the 4th century by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great.
It was founded on the site where Saint Peter, the first pope of the Christian Church, was martyred. The disciple was put to death during the reign of Nero (54 - 68 AD), crucified upside down inside the Vatican Circus in 64 AD.
The Martyrdom of Saint Peter by Caravaggio (1601)The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 2nd century AD, describes Nero's persecution of Rome's Christians in graphic detail: "Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed." (Taticus, Annals, 15.44)
No trace of the Vatican Circus is visible as it now underlies the Vatican, running from the left flank of the basilica to the Vatican Obelisk in the center of the square.
Map showing the Vatican Circus where Saint Peter was crucified
The tomb of Saint Peter, whose name in Latin means 'stone' because of the support he offered Christ, is supposedly directly below the altar of the Basilica. For this reason, many Popes have decided to rest for eternity right next to.
Who designed the new Saint Peter's Basilica?
Bramante was the man mainly responsible for Saint Peter's total renovation in the 1500s. He designed the historic basilica in the Renaissance style, and, inspired by the Pantheon, designed a circular dome at the center of a Greek cross structure supported by four pillars.
Raphael's Fire in the Borgo shows the Old Saint Peter's Basilica in the background
The construction of the dome, later redesigned into an oval shape by Michelangelo, was carried out by one of his students, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola and completed by Giacomo della Porta together with Domenico Fontana.
Carlo Maderno, nephew of Domenico Fontana, and Bernini will then complete the construction of the facade, the embellishment of the inside of the basilica and the construction of the Great Colonnade, marking the transition to the Baroque architecture, made of surprising dimensions, creativity and harmony.
Standing in the center is the Vatican Obelisk which once stood in the center of the circus in which Saint Peter was executed.
The Baroque touch is visible in the colonnade of Bernini composed by 284 Doric columns and 88 pillars that surround the entire basilica Travertine thought of as the symbolic embrace of the faithful alike.
Saint Peter's Basilica in popular culture
Known by the Romans as "Er Cupolone", the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica has always influenced the lives and views of people living in and travelling to Rome. Being the highest building in the city center, the dome has inspired local and international artists to write and compose their songs and movies catching at each corner the view and imagination with its majesty.
The most famous song for the Romans inspired by the dome is undoubtdely Roma Capoccia from Antonello Venditti, where Rome is the capital of the world, with its majestic Colosseum and its holy Basilica makes life more real and nicer, especially at sunset when time has decided to stop.
OPENING HOURS:Daily 7:00am to 7:00pm, April to September and from 7:00am to 6:30pm, October to March.
What to see inside Saint Peter's BasilicaSt. Peter's Dome is not the only wonder Michelangelo furnished Saint Peter's with. Inside one of Saint Peter's northern chapels stands his famous Pietà, a depiction of the Virgin Mary which is one of the most pathos-evoking statues in existence.
Another fascinating artwork is the famous bronze canopy (Baldachin) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Tradition holds that it is in the crypt beneath the Baldachin that Saint Peter lies buried.