As the heart of the Vatican and the entire Catholic world, the St. Peter's Basilica is one of the main attractions in Rome. Here you can view ancient Rome from the dome, get blown away by the gorgeous interior, attend masses and even receive a blessing from the pontiff. Some of the most outstanding masters of Italy had their hands in creating this wonder, which is saturated with history and legends.
The area and basilica that we see today have changed quite a bit over the centuries. Our little story therefore takes off with a brief history of the St. Peter's Cathedral, after which we will turn our attention to the greatest works of art that can be found inside – because, as the French writer Stendhal had already noticed, to cover everything at once is merely impossible.
If the foreigner who enters St. Peter’s attempts to see everything, he will develop a furious headache, and presently satiety and pain will render him incapable of any pleasure. Allow yourself only a few moments to indulge in the admiration inspired by a monument so great, so beautiful, so well kept, in a word the most beautiful church in the world’s most beautiful region.Diary of Stendhal
Between 64 and 67 AD, during the days of the Nero persecutions in Rome, a wanderer from Judea named Simeon was captured. The man was better known as Petrus, or Peter. He was convicted of preaching a new faith and, according to the legend, was crucified upside down by Nero. The emperor executed Peter on the slope of the Vatican Hill, where he was buried later. After the first altar was erected here in 313, pilgrims from all over Europe began to flock there.
The first basilica on this site was laid down by Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century. Under his rule, Christianity was adopted as the main religion all across the Roman Empire. From this early Christian construction, only the obelisk has survived. It marked the middle of the square in front of the Roman basilica, and still can be found there today, in the middle of St. Peter's square. Until the Renaissance, the obelisk was left nearly entirely untouched. Why? Medieval Romans believed that the remains of Julius Caesar were stored in a metal ball on top. Unfortunately, they figured out it was empty during a restoration in the 16th century.
At the beginning of the 16th century, Pope Julius II decided to demolish the old basilica to make way for a new, grandiose-scale building. Its construction started on April 18, 1506, according to the project of Donato Bramante, and ended more than a century and a half later. It was supposed to become a monumental building, which could not only accommodate a large number of parishioners but would also emphasize the power of the Church. Bramante took the outlines of a Greek cross as the basis for his design. Such an architectural composition was very common for religious buildings. The erection of the walls started shortly after the project was approved, but only a few years later, the work was halted due to the death of both Pope Julius II and the architect himself.
A large number of eminent sculptors and architects have subsequently been involved in the project of the new basilica, but the work did not really move on until 1546, when the seventy-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti took the position of chief architect. Michelangelo was inspired by the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, who created the incredible dome structure of the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Unfortunately, also Michelangelo never got to see the result of his work. In 1564, after the death of the master, the construction was entrusted to the architect Giacomo della Porta who completed the dome created by Michelangelo.
The St. Peter's Basilica was eventually finished on November 18, 1626. Pope Urban VIII consecrated the largest Catholic Church in the world, the size of which was unprecedented. Boasting a length of 220 meters and a height of over 136 meters, the Basilica was ready to accommodate more than 20 thousand believers.
When you enter St. Peter's Square, the symbolic hands of the Catholic Church greet you. These are two massive colonnades designed by the great master Bernini, following the idea of Pope Alexander VII. The Pope wanted to convey the idea that the Church will always accept anyone in its arms, both a true believer and a repentant heretic. Bernini brought this idea to life with 284 magnificent snow-white columns surrounding the square and crowned by 140 statues of saints – as if they are watching all who come here. Feeling very welcome with such a glorious entrance, let us now go to the Cathedral itself!
Not less than five huge doors lead to the Cathedral. Still, we can only enter through one of them – the Door of the Sacraments (or "Porta dei Sacramenti"). Have a look also at the rightmost door, the Holy Door (or "Porta Santa"). The Holy Door can only be opened by the Pope during a 'Jubilee' year, which generally takes place every 25 years. It is the year during which you can receive a complete indulgence, that is, the forgiveness of absolutely all sins.
St. Peter's Basilica strikes the imagination of everyone who crosses the threshold of this grandiose structure for the first time. A vast gallery of 90 meters in length welcomes you, with under its arches marvellous statues, gorgeous tombs, gold and marble. In other words, priceless works of art are stored here.
The first sculpture, which you will see right of the entrance, is the famous Pietà made by a 24-year-old Michelangelo. The sculptor often came and stood next to his creation and listened to what others were saying. This incredibly delicate work was done so masterfully that no one believed that it was made by this young Buonarotti. To end all speculation, Michelangelo stayed one night in the (former) St. Peter's Cathedral to put his signature on the marble. The young man was a master of sculpture but not that well-educated in writing, so he made a mistake. Up to this day, no one has fixed this mistake, so it is still there for you to see. Have a look at the sash running across Mary's chest – he wrote MICHAELA[N]GELVS instead of MICHELA[N]GELVS.
This early masterpiece of Michelangelo sadly became the victim of vandalism in 1972, when László Tóth damaged the statue with a hammer. The man claimed to be Jesus Christ himself and started smashing the sculpture. Many pieces fell apart and were stolen by tourists, but some were also returned. After a 10-month restoration, Pietà got back, but now protected under a special layer of glass.
Many elements of the interior were created with the participation of Bernini, who spent 50 years of his life decorating the Cathedral. One of his significant works is the tomb of Pope Alexander VII of the Chigi Family. The ensemble, made of coloured marble and bronze, depicts a praying pontiff, surrounded by allegorical statues of Mercy, Truth, Justice and Prudence. In front of the Alexander VII figure, you can see a skeleton wrapped in a red mantle. It is a symbol of death. An hourglass in its hand is a metaphor for the pontiff's end of earthly life. Pay attention to an interesting detail. One of the sculptures is depicted standing on a globe, with one of its feet covering England. This was not an accident, but symbolized the split between the Catholic and Anglican churches.
Walking along the central nave towards the altar, you will see another Bernini creation. It is the statue of the Roman centurion Longinus. It was he who pierced the crucified Christ to verify the death of the son of God. According to the legend, the centurion suffered from very poor eyesight. When the blood of Christ fell into Longinus' eyes, he immediately started seeing everything perfectly. After some time Longinus converted to Christianity, actively preached, and even became one of the Christian saints.
The main decoration, created by Bernini of course, is the bronze Baldachin towering above the Papal altar. Only a pontiff can celebrate a mass at this place, the ciborium. It stands right above the tomb of St. Peter – as it is here under the ground in the Vatican necropolis, that the Apostle's grave is located. Bernini's work on this masterpiece took 10 years, starting July 1626. To decorate this magnificent place, Pope Urban VIII from the Barberini family ordered to remove all the bronze from the Pantheon roof. People even started joking about this: “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did” (or "Quello che non hanno fatto i barbari, lo hanno fatto i Barberini").
The Baldachin columns imitate the shape of marble Solomon columns which Emperor Constantine brought to Rome in the 4th century during one of his campaigns. The great emperor installed them in the first basilica of St. Peter – and nowadays you can see 8 of those original columns, placed in niches above the statues of saints which surround Bernini's Baldachin.
In the central apse of the Basilica, behind the main altar, you can see another masterpiece of Bernini: the wooden chair of St. Peter framed in bronze. The King of Francs Charles II donated the wooden chair to Pope John VIII on the occasion of his coronation on December 25, 875. It is believed that the Apostle himself preached from this very chair.
Under the last arch of the central nave, you can see the famous bronze statue of St. Peter, made by the Italian sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio. It depicts the Apostle seated on a throne, blessing believers with his right hand and holding the key to the Kingdom of Heaven in his left hand. According to the belief, if you touch his right foot and faithfully ask for the fulfilment of a desire, it will undoubtedly come true. Over the years, millions of visitors have touched it and the toes of the Apostle became indistinguishable.
Above all this beauty rises an incredible dome. Michelangelo, who created its architectural plan, was inspired by the Pantheon and the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Its inner walls are decorated with mosaic paintings by Giovanni De Vecchi – paintings that become clear to see while paying a visit to the observation deck.
The splendid dome stands on four enormous columns, each decorated with a large medallion on top. These medallions depict the four evangelists with their symbols: St. Matthew with an angel, St. John with an eagle, St. Mark with a lion and St. Luke with a bull. In between the ribs of the dome, you can find some more amazing pictures of patriarchs and bishops, angels and seraphims, St. Mary and the Apostles.
Of course, these are not all the treasures that await you inside the Cathedral, but it is simply impossible to decompose the entire St. Peter's Cathedral in only one article. In any case, now you will be more than ready to find and distinguish its greatest masterpieces.
The best way to see the Basilica is to come here in the morning. The square opens at 6.30h, and the Cathedral opens its doors at 7h. It is at this early hour that you can enjoy the view of the square without crowds of tourists. Visiting the St. Peter's Basilica is free of charge.
Visiting the dome is paid, with regular tickets priced at € 8. The entrance to the dome opens at 8h, and can be found right of the Cathedral itself – as a point of reference, follow the signs of “la cupola” (the dome). To get up the dome, you will have to go up 551 stairs, but the first part (of 231 stairs) can also be overcome by an elevator.
From the top, an amazing panorama of the whole city opens up. You will see the Castel Sant'Angelo, the Vatican Gardens, and if you look closely, even the dome of the Pantheon will be visible. In a word – one of the best views of Rome.
Every Wednesday at 11h, the Pope holds a traditional public audience, welcoming everybody on the St. Peter's Square from his balcony. Among the crowd of ordinary visitors, you can easily notice the newlyweds. They come in search of a papal blessing.
Although Vatican City is located in a corner of central Rome, there's plenty of amazing things to do nearby. What about visiting Via Piccolomini for another – mind-blowing – perspective on the St. Peter's Cathedral? Or head for a calm walk along the Tiber towards the bustling neighborhood of Trastevere, where you are sure to find the terrace and coffee of your taste.
Heading north towards Prati will offer you three Roman markets, one for flowers and two food markets. In Prati you can also explore the Via Cola di Rienzo, an elegant shopping street, with shops for all tastes and budgets. In either case, it can be helpful to keep the overview by having a look at our free Streetwise map of Rome, where all this information is perfectly stored.
Of course you can also search it closer to home, and simply stay in Vatican City. There you will be able to explore the gorgeous Vatican Gardens, the fascinating Sistine Chapel, or one of the greatest art collections in the world at the Vatican Museums – with our article about the highlights of the Vatican Museums you will be totally prepared.