St. Peter’s Basilica, located in the city renowned for its magnificent churches, stands out as the largest, wealthiest, and most impressive of them all. With a rich history dating back to the 4th century, it was finally consecrated in Rome in 1626 after a construction period of 120 years. The lavish interior of the basilica showcases numerous stunning works of art, including three of Italy’s most famous masterpieces – Michelangelo’s Pietà, his magnificent dome, and Bernini’s 95-foot tall baldachin over the papal altar.
The massive interior of St. Peter’s Basilica measures 646 feet in length and spans over 3.7 acres of space. Michelangelo’s captivating Pietà, which he sculpted at just 25 years old, can be found within its walls. This masterpiece holds a unique place in art history as it is the only work Michelangelo ever signed, with his signature etched into the sash across the Madonna’s chest. Another notable feature in the basilica is the red floor disc, which marks the location where Charlemagne and later Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the pope.
At the heart of St. Peter’s Basilica stands Bernini’s renowned baldachin. This magnificent structure is supported by four spiraling columns and made from bronze taken from the Pantheon. The baldachin towers over the high altar, which rests on the site of St. Peter’s tomb. Only the pope is permitted to serve at this altar.
Soaring to a height of 390 feet, Michelangelo’s dome is a stunning sight to behold. Inspired by Brunelleschi’s design for the Duomo in Florence, the magnificent cupola is supported by four stone piers, each named after the saints whose statues are housed in the niches designed by Bernini – Longinus, Helena, Veronica, and Andrew.
To experience the breathtaking views from the top of Michelangelo’s dome, one can take the 551 steps from the entrance located on the right side of the main portico of the basilica. Alternatively, a small elevator takes visitors halfway up, with the remaining 320 steps needing to be climbed on foot. The ascent is long and strenuous, but the reward at the top is worth it. The panoramic views from the rooftop are simply stunning.
At the base of the Pier of St. Longinus lies the beloved 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter, crafted by Arnolfo di Cambio. This statue has been well-loved for centuries, as evidenced by the worn-down right foot from countless touches.
The Museo Storico Artistico, accessible from the left nave, showcases an array of sacred relics, including a tabernacle created by Donatello and the 6th-century Crux Vaticana, a cross embellished with precious gems that was gifted by Emperor Justinian II. Additionally, the Vatican Grottoes, located beneath the basilica, house the tombs and sarcophagi of several popes, as well as several massive columns from the original 4th-century basilica. The entrance to the grottoes can be found at the Pier of St. Andrew.
Archaeological excavations beneath St. Peter’s Basilica have uncovered portions of the original church and a potential site for the Tomb of St. Peter. In 1942, the remains of an elderly, robust man were discovered in a box hidden behind a wall covered in pilgrims’ graffiti. Although the Vatican has never officially confirmed that the bones belong to St. Peter, Pope Paul VI declared in 1968 that they had been identified in a manner that was considered “convincing” by the Vatican.
Visiting the excavations beneath the basilica is only possible through a guided tour. To learn more information and to book a tour (which should be done well in advance), visit the website of the Ufficio Scavi.
The original church at the site of St. Peter’s burial, believed to have taken place between 64-67 CE, was commissioned by Emperor Constantine and constructed in 349. However, like many medieval churches, it eventually deteriorated and it wasn’t until the mid-15th century that restoration efforts were undertaken, first by Pope Nicholas V and then, more effectively, by Pope Julius II.
Construction of a new basilica, designed by Bramante and based on a Greek cross plan featuring four equal arms and a massive central dome, began in 1506. Upon Bramante’s death in 1514, progress slowed as other architects such as Raphael and Antonio da Sangallo attempted to alter the original plans. Little headway was made until Michelangelo assumed control in 1547 at the age of 72.
Michelangelo streamlined Bramante’s plans and created designs for what would become his masterpiece, the dome. Sadly, he never got to witness its completion and it was left to Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana to finish the dome in 1590.
In 1605, Carlo Maderno took over the project and made a significant impact. He created the grand facade and expanded the nave towards the piazza.
Constructed between 1608 and 1612, the impressive facade designed by Carlo Maderno is a towering structure, measuring 48m (157ft) in height and 115m (377ft) in width. Eight columns, each 27m (89ft) tall, support the upper attic on which 13 statues stand representing Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, St John the Baptist, and the 11 apostles. The central balcony, known as the Loggia della Benedizione, is where the pope delivers his “Urbi et Orbi” blessing during Christmas and Easter.
Please be aware that there may be long lines and a strict dress code is enforced. This dress code prohibits the wearing of shorts, miniskirts, and clothing that reveals the shoulders.
During the period from October to May, the Pontifical North American College offers free two-hour tours of the basilica in English, led by seminarians. These tours typically commence at 2:15 pm on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and start from the Centro Servizi Pellegrini e Turisti. No tickets are required for these tours, but you may check online for more information.