Piazza San Pietro or St. Peters Square
You approach St. Peters on the Via Del Conciliazione which was built in 1930 by Mussolini to connect the Vatican with the rest of the city. Shops on both the right and left sides of the street were selling religious articles or books. There are also swarms of vendors selling rosaries, medallions, key chains, figurines, and anything else that might appeal to the emotions of their prospective clients.
Bernini built the colonnade sometime prior to 1667. His beautiful design represents the arms of the church reaching out to embrace humanity. The colonnade is 340Meters wide with a 240M center oval enclosed by 4 rows of 284 columns and 88 pillars. The balustrade topping the columns supports 140 statues of the saints. In the center of the oval directly down from the grand staircase are eight-meter high statues of Saints Peter and Paul. In the center of these statues is an obelisk that Caligula had brought from Egypt to Rome to decorate Nero’s Circus.
Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk moved here as a witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter and perhaps to indicate the triumph of the church over the degradation imposed during these early years. This huge area is where the public gathers for the Papal Audiences every Wednesday and also to hear the words of the Pope every Sunday. The colonnade is beautiful in the size, strength, and delicacy of the design and is a fantastic addition to the structure of St. Peters itself. We walked into the Piazza and looked around trying to get our bearings. The large center area was open and fairly devoid of people. There was a large fenced area which we later discovered was used for seating during the Papal Audiences ; and a long line of people on the right side of the colonnades waiting to enter something. We went to the left side of the colonnades, where there was a much shorter line. As the line moved slowly forward we looked upward at the magnificent Dome and the front of the church.
The huge dome 137M (meters high) seems to cap the Basilica as a Miter or a crown, a fitting tribute to complete such an immense and imposing structure. The dome was designed by Michelangelo and was completed under the direction of Giacomo Della Porta in 1590. Eight-hundred men worked night and day for two years to complete this marvel.
Made of travertine marble and extending 114M long by 45M high this beautiful front was designed by Carlo Moderno. At the top are thirteen six-meter statues representing “The Redeemer”, John the Baptist, and 11 of the apostles. The missing two, St. Peter and St. Paul are in the Piazza below. In the front of the Basilica are five doors, among them are: The Holy Door, The Center Door, The Door of Good and Evil, and The Door of Death.
The huge Basilica measures 25,616 Meters square; the outside perimeter is 1,778 Meters long. It has 44 altars, 11 domes, 778 columns, 395 statues, and 135 mosaic pictures. The central nave is 187 meters long, 140 meters wide and 46 meters high. The Dome rises 137 meters into the Roman skyline.
Mark and I gravitated toward the crowds of people on the right side of the Basilica and found the famous Pieta. The Pieta is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son Jesus Christ immediately after He had been taken down from the cross. Her face reflects serenity in the knowledge that her Son’s earthly battle has been completed and that He can move on to the next phase of his life accompanying His Father, God. Michelangelo created the sculpture when he was merely 24 years old. In 1972 it was damaged by a vandal who destroyed Mary’s hand and nose. It was restored and is now protected by a sheet of transparent acrylic.
We slowly wandered around past the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Bernini designed this most beautiful chapel. The sight you remember as you leave is of two beautiful gold angels inviting you to worship.
We walked past the statue of St. Peter where a long line of people were waiting to rub the toe of the statue, praying for him to open the Gates of Heaven for them when they die. Near the statue is the central and most holy area of the church. This area fittingly contains, The Baldacchino by Bernini, the Tomb of St. Peter, The Altar of Confession, and crowning it all, as a source of illumination, Michelangelo’s Dome.
In front of all of this is the Tomb of St. Peter. After Christ’s death the future and the expansion of the Catholic Church rested on Peter’s shoulders. He was the Rock and is the main reason that pilgrims visit the Basilica today. In front of the tomb 99 oil lamps burn constantly as a reminder to be faithful to Christ and St. Peter.
Bernini designed his Baldacchino when he was only 26. Can you even imagine such precocity? Four spiral columns richly trimmed in gold support this beautiful bronze canopy. The Baldacchino was started in 1624 and took 9 years to complete. It is the largest known bronze artwork. The Baldacchino covers the Altar of Confession, which is made from a single block of marble. This altar is referred to as the Main or Papal altar because this is where the Pope presides during religious services.
Framed by the Baldachino, is the Chapel of the Cathedra featuring another fabulous creation of Bernini, the highly stylized, Chair of St. Peter. This is not a usable chair; merely a representation of what could be considered a chair suitable for someone of St. Peter’s magnificence. Topping the colossal chair is a fabulous stained glass work representing the Holy Spirit as a dove in flight.
We wandered around looking at the myriad of altars, mosaics, and statues wishing we had more time. We both desired to go to the top of the Dome. Reluctantly we went out the door on the right side of the Portico and saw an elevator. I paid 12,000 Lira for us to take the elevator, well worth the price for the view we would soon enjoy. Silly me, I soon learned that the elevator only took us to the roof and that the rest of the way to the dome was by stairs; not only by stairs, but extremely narrow steeply winding stairs. I decided to walk around the roof and allow Mark to fill me in on the high spots, no pun intended.
In the middle of the roof I spotted a toilet facility and a souvenir stand. Whoever heard of a toilet on the roof? I made use of the one and then visited the other. The souvenir stand was fairly small and crowded. A few nuns who were busily conversing with visitors in various tongues operated it. I picked up a small gift box adorned with one of Michelangelo’s angels and a few token key chains and walked to the edge of the roof using one of the 13 statues of the Apostles as a shield to ward off an attack of vertigo, I looked down on the Piazza and far out onto the Via Del Conciliazione. What a beautiful view, of course, it was nothing compared to the view that Mark was getting from the top of the Dome. But then I’ll let you be the judge, take a look at the postcard quality photo my private lensman shot.
Mark soon descended from the Dome and joined me on the roof, we walked around and took a few photos from the roof and then realized we had to move on. It was getting late and we still wanted to visit the Catacombs. We grabbed a soda and candy bar for nourishment and went to the bus stop. We waited for Bus #660, it would take us to the Via Antica Appia. This was very difficult for me; I never ride the buses at home. But there seemed to be no other way to get to the Catacombs. As an apology, let me state that the bus system in Rome is very easy to use and my reluctance was ignorance and bias on my part. After reading about the catacombs we decided to visit the Catacombs of San Callisto which seemed to be the largest.
This is an excerpt from my book “Fulfillment is a Place”, a trip taken by my son and I to fulfill my desire to travel Europe. The book is .Available through Amazon Books