Rome sweet home (5)- Twelve things you must see in St Peter’s Basilica

Rome sweet home (5)- Twelve things you must see in St Peter’s Basilica

  1. The Façade and Portico or Atrium

The façade of St Peter’s built between 1608 and 1612 is one of the most recognizable structures in the world. Yet there is something quite not right with it for it disproportionately wide for its height. The problem began with the old St Peter’s Basilica built by Constantine. He decided to erect the Basilica on top of what was rumoured to be the shrine dedicated to St Peter on Vatican Hill.

To do this he had level one side of the hill which besides having a cemetery was also swampy land. Constantine destroyed most of the cemetery which was in use and transferred approximately 1,500,000,000 cubic feet of hard blue clay from the upper part of hillside, to the lower part, in order to carve a level platform upon which the basilica could be built.

It was Carlo Maderno who changed Bramante’s plan of St Peter’s from a Greek cross (equal arms on all sides) to a Latin cross and it was he who began to work on the façade. However he was bound to the  Michelangelo’s designs of the wings and the attic that would run all around the building. As a consequence of this design and the change from a Greek to a Latin cross design the dome of St Peter’s got obscured and what stands out is the façade.

The 376 feet wide and 150 feet high façade by Maderno originally had two  bell towers, one on each end of the façade as part of its design. This was done to lighten this issue caused by the attic, but the idea had to be abandon because the land  on which both St Peters and façade began to settle.

Pope Urban VIII then commissioned the Baroque sculptor-architect-painter Gian Lorenzo Bernini to complete the bell towers. The south tower (left hand side) was completed. However a war known as the ‘War of Castro’ with the Italian Farnese family brought this construction to a grinding halt as the project was hit by a financial shortfall.

It was at this stage that large cracks began to develop on the façade. Did the marshy soil on which St Peters was designed and built  along with the opulent  and  tall  baroque towers now come to haunt Bernini’s project? Many think that it was a combination of design flaws that went back to Carlo Maderno who began the towers on weak foundations? Today, only the bases of the bell towers remain and these are identified by the two archways below. It was  in 1790 that two clocks were designed by Giuseppe Valadier  and were introduced to the façade.

The present façade can be divided into three sections. The topmost called the attic with eight square windows decorated with small pilasters on whose balustrade stands the statues of Christ  ( 19 feet), St John the Baptist and eleven apostles not including Judas but St Mathias on the far right.  Also note that Peter is not included in these statues as he along with Paul stand at the base of St Peters as the guardians of Christianity (each of these are 18-feet high). The statues like the rest of St Peter’s is sculpted in a sturdy stone called travertine.

An inscription   commemorates the fact that the façade was built during the pontificate of Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) and reads,” Paul V Borghese, Roman, Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate, [erected] in honour of the Prince of Apostles”.

The central section of the façade has nine windows, three of which have balconies. It is in the central balcony called “Benediction Loggia”, that the newly elected Pope is announced from. It is from here that he also delivers his ‘Urbi et Orbi’ (to the city and the world) message on Easter and Christmas day. Just below the central balcony is a relief by Buonvicino and represents Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.

The faced was restored between April 1985 and July 1999 at a cost of 5.4 million dollars was aimed at bringing out some whitewashes designed by Maderno, that were hidden under the patina of time. The original copper cross (1613) in the arms of the statue of the Redeemer, which was replaced by a new one during the work, was given to the Knights of Columbus in recognition of their support for the restoration.

In the lower order there are five entrances to the atrium (don’t count the two archways at the extreme ends) which has some beautiful work on the ceiling decorated with stuccoes of scenes from the life of St Peter, and in the lunettes are thirty-eight statues of Popes, martyrs of the faith who are now declared as saints. Don’t forget to look at the two equestrian statues of Charlemagne (south and look to your left) and Constantine (north and look to your right) on either side of the portico.  

1. Equestrian Statue of Charlemagne (1720-1725)
   by Agostino Cornacchini (1683-1740)
2. Temperance (1728-1731) by Giuseppe Raffaelli (1696-1731)
3. Justice (1726-1727?) by Giovan Battista de Rossi
4. Inscription of Gregory II referring to the donation of olive trees
   for the supply of oil to the lamps of the Old Basilica (711-730)
5. The Door of Death (1948-1963) by Giacomo Manzu (1908-1991)
6. Epitaph of Hadrian I (795)
7. The Door of Good and Evil (1970-1977)
   by Luciano Minguzzi (1911-2004)
8. Central Door (1433-1445) by Antonio Averlino
    known as Filarete (c.1400-post 1466)
9. The Door of the Sacraments (1951-1965)
   by Venanzo Crocetti (1913-1997)
10. Inscription with the bull Antiquorum Habet Fida Relatio regarding
    the Jubilee of Boniface VIII (22 February 1300)
11. The Holy Door (1948-1950) by Vico Consorti (1902-1979)
      The Holy Door Panels

12. Inscription of John Paul II (1987)
13. Charity (1728-1732) by Bernardino Ludovisi (1693-c.1749)
14. Patio of St Gregory the Illuminator
    (Entrance to Grottoes, Elevator Kiosk for Roof)
15. Faith (1728-1732) by Giovan Battista de Rossi (d. 1738)
16. Equestrian statue of Constantine (1654-1670)
   by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
17. Hope (1728-1738) by Giuseppe Lironi (1689-1749)
18. The Church (1720-1732) by Giuseppe Frascari
19. Pavement Coat of Arms of Leo XIII (1888)
20. Pavement Coat of Arms of John XXIII (1962)
   designed by Giacomo Manzu (1908-1991)
21. Names of those at the proclamation of the
Dogma of the Assumption
, 1 November 1950

22. Pavement Coat of Arms of Clement X
23. Prudence (1725-1728?) by Giuseppe Lironi (1689-1749)
24. Fortitude (1721-1722) by Lorenzo Ottoni (1648-1736)

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