St. Peter’s Cathedral – the jewel of Rome, Italy

St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

St. Peter’s Cathedral, located in the Vatican (Basilica di San Pietro), is one of the most visited attractions in Rome. The history of the famous cathedral dates back to the 4th century: just imagine how many masterpieces of art are stored within its walls.

And don’t let the huge line that usually gathers in front of the cathedral scare you: you should visit it by all means. It’s the most important Catholic church in the world!

History of St. Peter’s Cathedral

Originally a Roman basilica was built at the site of today’s cathedral: its construction refers to the 4th century. At that time the empire was ruled by Constantine I (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus).

It was dedicated to the Apostle Peter, who was martyred in AD 64-67. – It was over his tomb that the first altar was created.

Architects and construction of the cathedral

During its existence the church had more than one reconstruction, but by the 16th century it had already partially collapsed. Then by decision of Pontiff Julius II (Iulius II) work was begun to restore the ancient temple.

The architect was appointed Donato Bramante, who planned to rebuild a small basilica in the form of a large cross with a huge dome.

But the famous architect failed to complete the plan: he died in 1514. He was succeeded by Raphael Santi, who worked on the cathedral with his assistant Fra Giocondo and later with Giuliano da Sangallo.

After Raphael’s death, the architect Antonio da Sangallo supervised the construction, suggesting the basilica be built in the shape of a Latin cross. He also failed to turn his idea into reality.

When da Sangallo died (in 1546) Pope Paul III appointed Michelangelo chief architect: he decided to return to Bramante’s original architectural plan.

Michelangelo did a colossal job, but it was Giacomo Della Porta who finished the temple, after Michelangelo died in 1564.

It was then that the decorative fragments of proto-Baroque appeared in the cathedral. The famous architect, along with Domenico Fontana, carried out work on the dome and the main vault of the cathedral.

Opening of the cathedral and the subsequent reconstruction

St. Peter’s Cathedral opened in 1590, when Pope Sixtus V celebrated the first mass. However, work continued on the exterior of the temple: a colonnade of 36 columns, a massive cross over the dome, and a golden lantern were erected.

When Pope Paul V came to power, it was decided to lengthen part of the building and also to add side aisles, as a result, the cathedral received the form of a Latin cross. Works on changing the temple were led by Carlo Maderno in the 17th century.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Vladimir Mucibabic / Shutterstock.com

St. Peter’s Square

The construction of the square in front of the cathedral (Piazza San Petro) was undertaken by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini from 1656 to 1667.

According to the plan the large-scale square had to accommodate a huge number of believers wishing to receive the blessing of the Pope or to participate in religious events.

Today, up to 400,000 people can stay here at the same time.

The oval-shaped square is surrounded by two galleries of columns: there are a total of 284 Doric columns as well as 80 pillars.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: SF photo / Shutterstock.com

Directly on the attic, with which the colonnade is topped, are 140 sculptures of saints. When viewed from above, the square resembles a key.

Architecture

When looking at St. Peter’s Cathedral, the first thing that impresses is its scale. The building with the dome reaches a height of about 132 meters, and the total area is equal to 23 thousand square meters. The height of Baroque facade is 48 meters, width – 118 meters.

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Facade

The facade of the cathedral is decorated with classical columns, behind which there are five portals. These are the Gates of Good and Evil (Porta del Bene del Male), the Gates of Death (Porta della Morte), the Filaret Gates (Porta del Filarete), the Holy Gates (Porta Santa) and the Sacramenti (Porta dei Sacramenti).

The Death Gate has a very interesting appearance: it was created in the 20th century by Giacomo Manzu.

Above the columns is an attic with statues of Christ, the 11 apostles and John the Baptist. The main statue is 5 meters long.

The central portal of the temple is framed by equestrian statues of Emperor Constantine, made in 1670 by Bernini, and Charlemagne, created in the 18th century by Augustino Cornaccini.

On the façade of the building you can also admire a wonderful 18th century clock by Giuseppe Veledier and the Navicella degli Apostoli painted in the 13th century by Giotto di Bondone.

What to see inside

Upon entering the cathedral, one is struck by the enormous interior, richly decorated with decorative elements. Just imagine: The arches separating the central nave and the two side naves are 23 meters high and 13 meters wide.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Mirec / Shutterstock.com

This design creates a sense of infinite depth of space – the total area is about 2,500 square meters.

Note the amazing marble floors – some elements are partially preserved from the original basilica.

The internal decoration of the cathedral was mainly done by Gian Lorenzo Bernini – it was he who created the famous statue of the Roman centurion Longinus. By the way, the original tip of the centurion’s spear is preserved in the cathedral.

Cathedral

Bernini’s main masterpiece in the cathedral is the enormous canopy with four pillars, the cévory, at its base.

Immediately above the canopy is a pulpit by the same master, created in honor of St. Peter. It includes an armchair of St. Peter, supported by statues of saints – above them the symbol of the Holy Spirit hovers.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Goran Bogicevic / Shutterstock.com

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com

On the right side of the pulpit is the tombstone of Pope Urban VIII (also by Bernini), and on the left is the tombstone of Paul III, which was created by Guglielmo della Porta in the 16th century.

Statue of St. Peter

If you walk through the entire gallery, in the last arch you will see a bronze statue of St. Peter, to which many worshippers come to worship. A line usually gathers near the statue, but people pass fairly quickly.

It is believed that you need to touch it and pray, and then your prayers will be heard. In the left hand of St. Peter are the keys to paradise.

The central part

Walk through the central nave of the temple: in niches are statues of Saints Helena-Sophia Barat, Teresa, Vincenzo de Paoli, John Bosco, Philippe Neri, John, and John Battista de la Salle.

In the very center of the temple one can see numerous mosaic paintings based on sketches by Domenichino.

Note the memorial to Pius VII, designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen. Here are also the tombs of the pontiffs and exquisitely decorated chapels.

Right aisle

The central sculptural group in the right aisle is the Pietà, executed in 1499 by Michelangelo himself. The title of the masterpiece translates as “Weeping of Christ”.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Vitaly Minko / Shutterstock.com

Nearby is the monument to Pope Leo XII, created in the 19th century by Giuseppe de Fabrisa, and the monument to Princess Christina by Carlo Fontana (17th century).

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Nearby is the tomb of Margravine Matilda of Canossa, one of Bernini’s masterpieces. She was the first woman to be buried in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

In the small chapel of the Crucifixion is a very beautiful wooden crucifix: it is believed to have been made by Pietro Cavallini in the 13th century.

St. Sebastian Chapel

Amazing mosaics are located in the Capelle di San Sebastiano, the work of Pier Paolo Cristofari.

By the way, the sketches of the mosaics belong to Domenichino. Looking at the vault, one can admire the fascinating mosaics by Pietro da Cortona.

The Chapel of the Holy Communion

The Capella del Santissimo Sacramento was decorated by Carlo Maderno and Francesco Borromini. Particular attention in the Chapel is attracted by the amazing decorative grid.

Nearby is the tombstone of Gregory III, with its bas-relief symbolizing the Pope’s reform. It was he who introduced the new (Gregorian) calendar.

A little further away is the tombstone of Clement XIII, designed by sculptor Antonio Canova.

Left aisle

In the left aisle you can admire the memorial to the Stuarts, made in the 19th century by Antonio Canova. Also worthy of admiration are the beautifully decorated 18th century tomb of Maria Clementina Sobeski by Pietro Bracci and the tomb of Pope Innocent VIII by the 15th century master Antonio Pollaiolo.

See the tomb of Alexander VII, decorated by Bernini himself. The bronze-marble ensemble includes a sculpture of a praying pontiff surrounded by statues of Truth, Mercy, Prudence and Justice. In the foreground is a skeleton symbolizing death: in his hands you can see an hourglass.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: VDV / Shutterstock.com

Chapel of the Baptism

Walking down the left aisle, look out for the Chapel of Baptism (Capella del Battesimo) – it was designed by Carlo Fontana and mosaicked by Baciccio.

The dome

The grandiose dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral, visible from far away, weighs 14,000 tons. Its inner diameter is about 41 meters and its height is about 117 meters.

The dome was created according to the architectural plan of Michelangelo: originally the construction had to have the diameter of a perfect sphere.

St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican

Photo: Daniel M. Silva / Shutterstock.com

Giacomo della Porta was in charge of constructing the dome, and he made the necessary changes to ensure its stability. However, by the 18th century the construction was already falling apart: the massive chains used to hold the vault together helped to save the dome.

The dome has 16 windows that are separated by double columns and inside the structure is supported by four massive columns. While in the cathedral, you can admire the fascinating mosaics by Giovanni De Vecchi.

How to reach St. Peter’s Basilica

The cathedral is located on Piazza San Retro. How to reach it:

  • By subway (line A) with a stop on San Pietro or Ottaviano: the exit from the first station is closer to the square, and from the second, closer to the museums;
  • buses nos. 11, 23, 32, 81, 590, 982: get off at the Risorgimento stop;
  • If you plan to go straight to St. Peter’s Basilica and museums on arrival at Termini station, buses nos. 40 and 64 will do;
  • Streetcar 19, which stops close to the cathedral at San Pietro.

Hours of Operation

St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome can be visited daily from 7.00 am to 6.30 pm.

Climb the dome every day from 7.30 am to 5 pm.

Ticket prices

You can enter the cathedral itself for free (as of 2022).

The cost of climbing the dome depends on how many steps you are willing to climb:

  • First option: you take the elevator and climb the 320 stairs. Ticket price: 10 Euro.
  • Second option: you go up on foot and pass 551 stairs. Ticket price: 8 euros.
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Note that the width of the aisle at the top is only 50 cm – it is not very comfortable to walk up. In total, the ascent and descent will take you about 1 hour.

Information about prices and opening hours are subject to change – check the official website www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/it/cupola/orari.htm.

Vatican tours

To avoid being confused by the many masterpieces of the Vatican, take a special tour by a knowledgeable guide: he will guide you through the small state, showing St. Peter’s Cathedral and the famous museums. That way you won’t miss anything important and listen to the guide’s fascinating tales of Vatican history and art.

Check out the tour program for you and your company on Tripster.

St. Peter’s Cathedral

St. Peter's Cathedral

St. Peter’s Cathedral is one of the most famous churches in the world, the most important Catholic cathedral on the planet, as well as the main and largest structure of the Vatican, the religious center of this state. It is one of the 4 patriarchal basilicas of Rome. In addition, St. Peter’s Cathedral is the ceremonial center of the Roman Catholic Church.

Its width is 211.5 meters.

The total area is 22,067 square meters.

According to legend, the cathedral was built on the site where the Apostle Peter was once executed. Indeed, the probability is high that this is not a legend, but a historical fact – the remains of St. Peter are really buried under the cathedral’s altar.

The cathedral was built from 1506 to 1626.

St. Peter's Cathedral

Several generations of legendary masters such as Donato Bramante, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giacomo della Porta, Raphael Santi, Giovanni Bernini, Domenico Fontana, Carlo Maderno and many others worked on the church.

It is one of the largest cathedrals in the world and the most spacious in existence. It is surpassed only by Notre Dame de la Paix Basilica in Yamoussoukro (the capital of Ivory Coast) – its height is 158 meters compared to the 136.6 meters of St. Peter’s Basilica. However, the Vatican basilica can accommodate about 60,000 worshippers (and another 400,000 in the square in front of the cathedral), while Notre Dame de la Paix has only 18,000.

Millions of Christians attend services conducted by the Pope himself each year.

Tickets and opening hours

The ticket to St. Peter’s Cathedral costs 8 euros if you choose to climb to the top of the temple on foot (not everyone can do it, there are 551 steps ahead). Using the elevator, you will shorten the way to 320 steps, but you will have to pay 10 euros. Children under 12 years of age can enter the cathedral for free.

Visiting the tomb of St. Peter and the necropolis is possible only by appointment. It can be done by mail scavi@fsp.va or by calling +39 06 69873017.

You can also visit the cathedral as part of a guided tour.

The working hours in summer (from April 1 to September 30) are from 07:00 to 19:00, and in winter (from October 1 to March 31) from 07:00 to 18:30.

Visiting the dome in the summer period (from April 1 to September 30) – from 07:30 to 18:00, in the winter period (from October 1 to March 31) – from 07:30 to 17:00.

It is possible to go to St. Peter’s Cathedral without queuing through a separate entrance. You see the cathedral on your own with an audio guide, available in 11 languages. Click the button below for details.

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History of St. Peter’s Cathedral

It is believed that the Apostle Peter was captured by order of the Emperor Nero and executed on the site of today’s St. Peter’s Cathedral in 64-67 AD. In 313, Christians erected the first altar of the very first basilica on this site, the Basilica of Constantine, which subsequently stood for centuries (not without reconstructions, of course).

By the early 16th century, the ancient temple required serious reconstruction. Pope Julius II chose the architect Donato Bramante to restore the temple or, to be more precise, to build an entirely new, more grandiose cathedral. Bramante’s original idea was for a cathedral in the shape of a cross, topped with a dome. Unfortunately, Bramante died in 1514, without having had time to complete it. Other architects later continued to work on the reconstruction.

Curious and gloomy fact – during 6 years of work on the cathedral three famous masters died.

St. Peter's Cathedral

Subsequently, the form and idea of the temple kept changing on paper. In 1546 Michelangelo begins to lead the construction – he decides to return to Bramante’s original idea with a reinforcement of the structure. However, the master also did not live to see the end of construction. He died in 1564, and the work on the cathedral continued Giacomo de la Porta.

In 1590, Pope Sixtus V celebrated Mass in the new cathedral, although construction and decoration were still going on.

In 1605, Pope Paul V decided to slightly modify the cathedral, changing the original form of the Greek cross to the Latin cross. It was possible to do this by lengthening the longitudinal part. The architect Carlo Moderno took on the work. Under him the side aisles were added, St. Peter’s Cathedral was transformed into a three-aisled basilica.

The beautiful baroque facade is also designed by Carlo Moderno. It is 118 meters wide and 48 meters high. Classical columns support an attic with 13 statues – the front is decorated with an impressive statue of Jesus Christ, 5 meters high, around which are the statues of John the Baptist and the 11 apostles. In the 18th century, Giuseppe Valadier creates a clock, which is installed on the facade of the temple.

Immediately behind the columns of the portico are five gates that lead inside the cathedral – they were created at different times. For example, the Gate of Death was created in the 20th century by Giacomo Manzù. Through them the Vatican sends the deceased Popes to their last journey. Other gates are the Gates of Good and Evil, the Gates of Filaret, the Gates of the Sacraments, and the Holy Gates.

The central portal of the temple is decorated by two large equestrian statues – the statue of Charlemagne (by Augustino Cornaccini, 18th century) and the statue of Emperor Constantine (by Giovanni Bernini, 17th century). You can also see the 13th-century fresco “Naviciella” by Giotto di Bondone.

St. Peter’s Cathedral interior

The arched vaults inside the cathedral are 23 meters high and 13 meters wide and separate the central nave from the two side ones. In one of the arches of the central nave is a miraculous bronze statue of St. Peter (attracts tens of thousands of worshippers every year). The inner gallery, leading from the entrance to the altar, is 90 meters long.

The marble floors of St. Peter’s Basilica are partially preserved from the first church, the Basilica of Constantine. The Egyptian porphyry disc, on which Charlemagne knelt during his coronation in 800, can also be seen here. Subsequently, his example was followed by most European rulers until the 15th century.

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St. Peter's Cathedral

The interior of the temple is impossible to imagine without the work of Giovanni Bernini – he spent about 50 years, decorating the main Vatican temple. For example, here you can find a statue of centurion Longinus by his authorship. By the way, the tip of the spear, with which Longinus pierced Christ, is kept here, in St. Peter’s Basilica. The incredibly luxurious canopy with many decorative elements over the temple’s altar was also created by Bernini, as was the pulpit in honor of St. Peter.

In the central part of the cathedral you can see 4 pillars holding up the dome – Michelangelo’s idea. In the heart of the church are many mosaic paintings based on sketches by Domenichino.

The central nave is also decorated with statues of numerous saints. The right aisle is decorated with the sculptural group “The Mourning of Christ”, created by Michelangelo himself in 1499. It is protected from dust and dirt, as well as from vandals (for a reason – in 1972, the masterpiece was attacked by a madman with a hammer) with a special glass cover.

Google Panoramas of St. Peter’s Cathedral

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica is the tomb of Countess Matilda of Canossa by the same Bernini. Notable is Matilda of Canossa because she was the first woman buried in the cathedral.

The left aisle is interesting because it contains the tomb of Pope Alexander VII with numerous decorative elements – the last of Bernini’s significant works. Also in the left aisle is the Chapel of Baptism by Charles Fontana, the tomb of Maria Clementina Sobieschi, the memorial to the Stuarts and the tomb of Pope Innocent VIII.

St. Peter’s Dome

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica has a height of 136.57 meters from the floor of the temple to the very end outside, crowned by a cross. The height inside the church is 117.57 meters. The weight of the dome is 14,000 tons! The dome was designed by Michelangelo, who was inspired by the dome of the Pantheon in Rome and the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

In the 18th century the dome began to crumble under its own enormous weight and the effects of the winds. Because of this, additional work had to be done to reinforce the structure with four strong chains that held the vault together.

How to get to St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

St. Peter’s Basilica can be reached either on foot or by public transportation. St. Peter’s Cathedral is the tallest building in historic Rome (it is simply forbidden to build any taller). The building is visible from the heights and some squares of the Eternal City.

If you decide to take the metro, you need the red line MEA. The nearest station is Ottaviano. You have to walk no more than 500 meters.

You can take buses 23, 34, 40, 46, 62, 64, 98, 115, 280.

You can also call a cab. You can order a car through the application Uber or Gett on your smartphone or use the services of a local company (for example, Radio Taxi by phone 06-3570 or Pronto Taxi by phone 06-6645). Cabs in Rome are expensive – it’s better to use public transport.

Finally, you can walk. Below are the walking routes from such popular attractions in Rome as the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and Piazza di Spagna.

The walking route from the Colosseum to St. Peter’s Basilica:

A walking route from the Trevi Fountain to St. Peter’s Cathedral:

Walking route from Piazza Española to St. Peter’s Cathedral:

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