After Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in AD 313 he ordered the building of the first official structures for Christian worship in the world and top of his list was the Basilica on the site of the burial, and next door to the location of the martyrdom of St. Peter. By 1500 Constantine’s basilica had stood for nearly 1,200 years and was at serious risk of collapse. Pope Julius II laid the foundation stone for new St. Peter’s in 1506, but the building was not completed for another 120 years.

St. Peter's Basilica from Castel Sant'Angelo

In essence the church we see today, still the largest Catholic church in the world, is only the top layer of buildings. The first layer is the remains of the ancient Roman necropolis. The Vatican area was considered suburban in Ancient Rome and, due to its proximity to the city, was the perfect site for a burial place as under Roman law it was illegal to bury the dead inside the city limits. The necropolis was in use from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD and some of the mausolea were used for Christian burial. Despite the Edict of Milan, making Christianity legal, and the importance of St. Peter’s tomb, it was still against the law for the Emperor to destroy this burial place to make way for the planned church. When Constantine came to build the first basilica to St. Peter he simply filled in the road way and small lanes between the Ancient Roman tombs and mausolea and leveled off the top of Vatican hill, thereby keeping the necropolis intact, albeit inaccessible. St. Peter was buried towards the top of the hill and the layout of the new church was to be oriented around his tomb. Once this level platform had been created, the new basilica was constructed on top of it. Later, in the 16th and 17th century when the new basilica was planned it was decided to use the lower section of the walls, and much of the foundation structure from Constantine’s basilica as a base for the building.

The second level, which was originally floor level in Constantine’s basilica, then became the grottos or burial place for popes, kings and queens dating from the 10th century and is still used as such today. It used to contain the tomb of Pope John Paul II before he was beatified and moved up to the basilica proper, where his body is now on display in the second chapel along from the entrance on right-hand side, next to Michelangelo’s famous Pieta. For the general public, a tour of the grottos allows you to get as close as possible to the burial place of St. Peter, as well as containing the beautifully decorated sarcophagus of Pope Boniface VIII, who started the concept of the Jubilee in the year 1300. It is open every day and access is via the same route as to the Basilica, when you walk through the narthex or porch of the church turn right and then left and follow the signs for the grottos.

The third level down, the remains of the necropolis meaning ‘city of the dead’, has also remarkably survived intact, but was only re-discovered in the 1940s. Pope Pius IX commissioned excavations beneath the grottos as he wanted to be buried as close as possible to the tomb of St. Peter. While excavating the floor they found carved sections of stone that looked like the type of decorations found along the roof-line of Ancient Roman buildings. As the dug down further they discovered whole mausolea buried beneath the floor. Over the course of many years this area was excavated, and it is now possible to take a tour of the Scavi, or excavations, and literally walk up Vatican hill as it was 2,000 years ago, through the Roman necropolis to the site of the tomb of St. Peter. Access to this special area is seriously restricted, and a request to join a small group to take the tour must be made directly to the scavi office. It is best to do this well in advance of your visit as the numbers permitted entry each day are very low. It is, however, one of the most fascinating tours in Rome, and a very special treat for the lucky few who gain access to this sacred area. For more information on how to make a reservation click HERE.

Old St. Peter's with the fortress of the Sistine Chapel in the right background. Photo by Flickr user William Allen, Image Historian

Old St. Peter's with the fortress of the Sistine Chapel in the right background. Photo by Flickr user William Allen, Image Historian

The brainchild behind the new St. Peter’s Basilica was Pope Julius II. In fact, it is to him and his desire to leave an indelible mark on the architectural and artistic landscape of Rome that we owe many of the masterpieces to be found at the Vatican today. He commissioned Raphael to paint the suite of rooms which he used as his papal apartments, Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Bramante to build the spiral staircase as an entrance to the palace, and started the classical sculpture collection, later converting parts of the palace to act as galleries to contain this collection. At St. Peter’s he envisaged a monumental new basilica topped with the largest dome in the world, and under the dome, in the center of the church an elaborate, three-storey tall, pyramidal monument to himself, surrounded by 47 statues carved by Michelangelo, with a statue of himself crowning the apex of the structure. Sadly for Julius and fortunately for us, his plan for this funerary monument never came to fruition, and was dramatically reduced in size. Julius didn’t even get to position the monument in St. Peter’s basilica, but it can now be found in the church of Saint Peter in Chains, with only one work in the group by Michelangelo being used, the famous Moses statue.

In the early Renaissance, in Florence, the reintroduction of classical Greco-Roman style architecture became extremely fashionable. Pope Julius II was Florentine, so nothing short of the most modern and fashionable would be good enough for his reinvented St. Peter’s. He had the architect Bramante draw up plans for the new basilica, which originally was to be a centrally planned church, designed around a colossal dome. The construction was done in stages, the back end of the old basilica was destroyed so that work could begin on the new structure, but the nave and façade of the original basilica was kept intact. Sadly for Julius, who died in 1513, little more than the back walls had been completed in his lifetime. One of the principle reasons for the snails pace of building works at St. Peter’s Basilica was the difficulty in constructing the dome. Julius wanted a building that would outdo the monumental structures of Ancient Rome, such as the Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius in the Forum, and the breathtaking dome of the Pantheon, but as the architects and engineers were still at the stage where they were learning from these buildings, none of them felt capable enough to begin construction work on the dome for fear of failure. For nearly 40 years building work was stalled, and a slew of architects were named director of works, including Raphael, making little progress except from designing models and drawing up plans. Raphael used what was constructed of the apse, transepts, and the central piers as the background for his “School of Athens” fresco painted for Julius II’s Stanza della Segnatura, which can be seen on a visit to the Vatican Museums. The disappointment Julius II felt about the lack of progress on the project is clearly mirrored in the gaping hole there is in the ceiling of the building that, instead of being crowned by a dome, is open to the sky. And so it was with St. Peter’s Basilica for two generations, the old basilica lay in partial ruins, while the new structure remained dome-less and unfinished, until Michelangelo was appointed director of works in 1547.

Photo by Flickr user: Larry

The Dome: Photo by Flickr user: Larry

For the rest of his life, until his death in 1564, Michelangelo worked on completing the external walls, and roof sections of the back of the church, as well as finally producing a scheme which would allow the dome to be built. By his death the drum, or base of the dome, and the curved cupola itself had been all but completed, but the lantern at the top, which would act as a keystone for the entire structure, was finished after his death in 1593. The dome rises 136.5 meters, nearly 50 stories, and is still the tallest in the world. The dome is open to the public and tickets can be purchased for the elevator, which will take you to the basilica’s roof by following the signs from the entrance porch of the basilica. You will have to walk a further 231 steps that wind their way up through the double layered structure of the dome all the way to the lantern on top. The views are incredible, and it is well worth the trek. On your way back down you can stop at the roof terrace café for a well deserved drink and take some panoramic photo’s of St. Peter’ Square from above.

By 1600 the idea of the centrally arranged church, which looked like a Greek cross in plan, as Bramante and Julius II had imagined, was scrapped in favor of the more traditional, Latin cross layout. This meant extending the nave, which in effect doubled the length of the basilica to 218 meters. In 1606 Carlo Maderno extended the nave and by 1614 he had finished the façade of the building. Internal decoration and final touches meant the new St. Peter’s Basilica was not official consecrated until 1626 by Pope Paul V.

Entrance to the basilica is through St. Peter’s Square. Visitors must line up to go through the metal detectors, and will be lead through the inner section of colonnade to where it joins the north side of the smaller rectangular square directly in front of the church. Where these two sections of the square meet you will see a large doorway, flanked by two Swiss guards. This is one of the official entrances to the Apostolic Palace, and right beside the old guard’s house, which is why it is protected. If you look behind the guards you will be able to catch a glimpse of the marvelous “Scala Regia”, originally designed by Antonio da Sangallo the younger and later restored in full Baroque spendor by Bernini in the 17th century. This ceremonial staircase was used to connect the papal palace to St. Peter’s Basilica and used as part of the triumphant procession for a newly elected pope.

Photo by Flickr user: april

Interior view of the dome: Photo by Flickr user: april

As you approach the basilica entrance you will be forced into line again by some of the Vatican guards who will be inspecting you to ensure you are properly dressed. The Vatican has a strict dress code, which is applicable to both men and women equally: no shorts or skirts above the knee, and no shoulders, chest, or upper back can be uncovered or exposed. This is very important as, if the guards decide you are not dressed appropriately, you will not be permitted to climb the steps up to the basilica. Moreover, there is nowhere in this area to buy a scarf or shawl that you might use to cover your shoulders or fashion a makeshift sarong: you will be forced to exit the secure area, find a shop or stall to buy your new outfit from, and then line up all over again. It definitely pays to come prepared!

Once you get past this checkpoint you can make your way up the stairs to the narthex of the basilica. Here you will be faced with 5 doors, which represent the 5 inner aisles of the original basilica. The central door, known as the Filarete door, was finished in 1445 by Antonio Averlino. The solid bronze double doors include cast bronze panel’s depicting scenes from the life and martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. It is one of the few decorative elements from the old basilica to have been kept and reused for the new St. Peter’s. The last door on the right is the Porta Santa or Holy Door and is only opened for holy or jubilee years. During the ceremony to open the door the Pope knocks on it with a bronze hammer, and it remains open for the duration of the year.

From here you can either step into the basilica proper, preferably through the holy door, or turn right and make your way to the grottos underneath the basilica, the entrance to take the elevator to the dome, or visit the gift shop. This shop is run by nuns, and is the perfect place to buy a souvenir or commemorative rosary. It is also possible to buy Mass cards here, and ask for a mass to be celebrated in St. Peter’s basilica and dedicated to a loved one, something which is common in English-speaking countries, but hard to find in Italy. It is not possible to buy anything that has been blessed by the pope as this would be akin to simony. However, it is possible to buy a rosary or medal and have it blessed later, during the papal audience, the item can then be sent to your hotel within a few days.

Photo by Flickr user: Dennis Jarvis

Holy Door: Photo by Flockr user: Dennis Jarvis

The pope gives a general papal audience on Wednesday when he is in residence in the Vatican. For more information about requesting tickets for the audience, the opening hours of the basilica, grottos, and dome please click on the link HERE.

The easiest way to get around Rome and make your way to the various sights is to take a tour bus. Click on the link HERE to find out more about the Roma Christiana open bus ticket and transport card. The hop-on hop-off bus stops on via della Conciliazione, right in front of St. Peter's Square for easy access to the Vatican area, but also makes stop at the Colosseum and Forum area, and the city center beside the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

Or opt for the Roma Omnia card specifically designed for pilgrims. It is a pass to the Vatican and Rome city which includes 3 days of hop-on hop-off bus transportation, fast track entry to St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican Museums and the Colosseum as well as many discounted rates for other Roman museums. For more information click the link HERE

ACCOMMODATION NEAR ST. PETER’S BASILICA

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ACTIVITIES IN THE AREA

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