Rome sweet home (3) – St Peter’s, built in living stone

St Peter’s; in the foreground is the Holy water stoups; in the back ground Bernini’s baldacchino and the chair of St Peter – photographed by the author

Rome sweet home (3) – St Peter’s, built in living stone.

St Peter’s Basilica is built within the walls of an independent nation called the Vatican. The Vatican gets its name from the Etruscan goddess or the guardian of the dead called Vatica. At one time the area which we now call the Vatican, was nothing more than a cemetery. The Vatican, built on one side of the river Tiber, overlooks the seven hills on which Rome was built. During the Roman era, this land was a marshy area and hence not populated. In time the the Circus of Nero was built here.

St Peter’s Basilica was built beside the Circus of Nero or Circus of Caligula. It is here that that Peter and the early Christians were martyred. Along side the circus was a cemetery where St. Peter was buried and a memorial was built. The circus itself was already abandoned by the middle of the second century AD and tombs were then built here.

Plan of Nero’s Circus and the present St Peter’s Basilica

The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, built the first St. Peter’s in the early 300 ADs over the place where it was rumoured by tradition, to be the tomb of St. Peter. He replaced the simple sanctuary of the Prince of the Apostles with a larger structure.

St. Peter’s is principally a house of worship but it means many things to many people. The structure itself is a masterpiece designed by some of the most famous names in history. The artifacts, both in the Basilica and the treasury museum, are unmatched. Its furnishings are priceless and its history embraces every floor and pillar of this place of worship.

The plan of the first St Peter’s Basilica

The old structure was torn down to build the new St. Peter’s and  construction began in 1506 and ended in 1612. It took 13 Popes and 14 architects to get this building up for worship. Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante to build a new Basilica for it was his design that won Julius II’s competition. In 1506, Julius, before 35 cardinals, laid the foundations of this enormous structure. The present structure was designed over time, principally by four men, Donato Bramante, Michaelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernin, and epitomises Renaissance architecture.

It was Donato Bramante’s blueprints shaped in the form of a Greek cross (a cross with equal arms or similar to the design of the Pantheon) that was used by architect Giuliano da Sangallo, who was followed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, Andrea Sansovino, Rapheal Sanzio and Baldassarre Peruzzii. It was Raphael who suggested changes in the original plan of Bramante.

Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a student of Bramante who had died in 1514, then took over the project. He was followed by the renowned Michelangelo who in 1546  oversaw its construction for 18 years from 1546 to 1564. Michelangelo was 71 years old when the Pope persuaded him to take over the church project and design its present dome. When Michelangelo died at the age of 89 in 1564, only the drum, the base on which the dome rests, was completed. It would be another 16 years until his student Giacomo Della Porta would finish it entirely.

Etienne Duperac’s cross section of Michelangelo Plan for St Peter’s

In 1606, Pope Paul V had decided to follow through on the form of the Latin cross, ( imagine the shape of a cross) perhaps giving this project the boost it much needed. From 1608 to 1612, Carlo Maderno extended Michelangelo’s plan adding a nave and current facade(the frontage) to design and build the basilica’s atrium, or open portico, and eventually began work on the exterior of the church. Gian Lorenzo Bernini added the piazza, the Cathedra Petri ( Chair of St Peter which is behind the main altar), and the Baldacchino ( under which the Pope celebrates the Mass). After over 100 years of construction, the New St. Peter’s Basilica was officially consecrated, or declared sacred by the Church on November 18, 1626.

Fr Warner D’Souza


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