St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican – a place of strong Christian spirit

St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican

The huge open space in front of the world’s main Catholic church is a true masterpiece of urban planning in its artistic perfection. Designed by Bernini in 1657, today St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican is the ceremonial entrance to the independent Papal State. Every day tens of thousands of tourists who come to Rome from all over the world flock here. And according to various estimates up to 600 thousand believers gather on the square to hear the papal blessing.

The area, as well as the cathedral, is named after Peter – one of the 12 apostles, who were disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. According to Christian legend, under the main altar of the temple there is a burial place of the saint apostle himself. After excavations and investigations in 1964, this was confirmed by Pope Paul IV in his official declaration.

saint peter square, vatican square, piazza san pietro, piazza petra

The history of St. Peter’s Square

The large valley on the right bank of the Tiber, between Vatican Hill and Gianicolo Hill, has long been occupied by noble families. Their residences were set amongst magnificent gardens, horti (from the Latin hortus), the most famous of which were the horti of Vipsania Agrippina.

Nero's Circus

Agrippina inherited the gardens of Vipsania Agrippina by her son Caligula who set up a hippodrome there in 37 AD that was later rebuilt into a monumental circus by his brother Nero. After the great fire that broke out in Rome in 64 A.D., the emperor Nero had many Christians executed there, on the charge of setting the city on fire. Being crucified on an upside down cross head down, the most famous of the Christians of that time, the disciple and follower of the Saviour, the Apostle Peter, was martyred here. According to ancient tradition, he was buried here on the southern slope of Vatican Hill, right in front of the circus of Nero between 64-67 A.D.

A hundred years later, around A.D. 160, a small funerary edicule (from Latin aedis – chapel, small temple) was erected on the site of St. Peter’s burial, which consisted of two tombstones – one placed at ground level, and the other supported by a pair of marble columns. The Apostle’s grave became a place of mass pilgrimage of Christians and a center of the future necropolis – within many years all future Christian burials started to be placed around it – until the construction there in 319-326. Constantine’s Basilica.

Constantine Basilica plan

Since a relatively flat area was required for the construction of the basilica, Emperor Constantine ordered a part of the Vatican Hill to be dug up. His soils were filled in the valley and the entire cemetery area located in it. This religiously unusual decision was evidently justified by the great importance that the burial of the Apostle Peter represented to pilgrims who had embraced the Christian faith.

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Up to the fifteenth century, a large open space called the Sancti Petri plateau, on the edge of which the Roman Borgo district had originated in the Middle Ages, was preserved in front of the Basilica of Constantine. Pope Nicholas V (Tomaso Parentucelli, 1397-1455), as part of the general reorganization of the area around the church, planned to turn this shapeless space into a square. The Pope had asked the Italian architect Bernardo Rossellino (1409-1464), who had already been working on a reconstruction of the ancient Constantine Basilica since 1451, to bring this project to fruition. However, due to the death of Nicholas V, these plans were never implemented.

Basilica of Constantine

At the beginning of the XVI century Sancti Petri plateau was a huge rectangle without stone paving, stretching from the basilica to the bank of the Tiber River with a difference of more than 10 meters. Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513), who ascended the papal throne in 1503, had the Constantinian Basilica reconstructed. Its demolition and construction of a new Christian church was begun on April 18, 1506, according to a project by the architect Donato Bramante (1444-1514).

The work of erecting a new Christian church had been underway for over a hundred years. Over this long period of time, many outstanding sculptors and architects of the Renaissance took part in the grandiose project: Raphael Santi, Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giovanni Giocondo, Antonio da Sangallo Junior, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pirro Ligorio, Jacolo Barozzi da Vignola, Giacomo della Porta, Domenico Fontana, Carlo Maderno, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and many others. On November 18, 1626 the new St. Peter’s Basilica was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII.

St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome

For a century, while construction was going on, the area in front of the temple was a huge construction site. Only in 1657, under the pontificate of Alexander VII, the square in front of the main Catholic church of the world began to acquire a representative monumentality.

St. Peter’s square

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square is the main and only square of the small and important Vatican State. It is always crowded and on Wednesdays, Sundays and holy days a great number of people gather to see the Pope and receive his blessing.

The square bears the name of St. Peter the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus, the first pontiff of the Catholic Church, the patron of Rome and the keeper of the key to the kingdom of heaven. Every year millions of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world come to see one of the most beautiful squares in the world, regardless of religion or outlook on life.

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History

St. Peter’s Square is located between the two Roman hills, the Vatican City and the Janiculum. It was once the site of Nero’s gardens and circus, where, according to legend, in the first century the emperor ordered the crucifixion of the Apostle Peter upside down. This happened shortly after the great fire, which was followed by the persecution of Christians accused of arson, turned into a mass phenomenon. Legends, however, say that the fire was set by Nero himself.

At the beginning of the XVI century, when the reconstruction of the old basilica and the new Cathedral began, the square had a rectangular shape without any surface. To get to it from the nearest bank of the Tiber, it was necessary to overcome the elevation of 10 meters. In the middle of the 16th century, the square was enlarged and an Egyptian obelisk, which had witnessed the tragic death of the Apostle Peter, was moved there.

In the middle of the 17th century, the brilliant architect and sculptor Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned to design the square in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The first version suggested a trapezoidal form, but it was rejected by the master himself. He subsequently corrected the details several times during the second draft. The result was stunning – the square surrounded by oval colonnades with sculptures set on them, strikes even those who come here not for the first time.

Many people think that St. Peter’s Square is located in Rome, and the Vatican is part of Italy. One can only partly agree with this. The truth is that for almost six decades, since the final formation of the united Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the Papal Region was abolished and all of its remaining lands came under the jurisdiction of the young state. It was not until 1929 that the Holy See and the Italian government, led at the time by the notorious B. Mussolini, concluded the Lateran Agreements that defined the borders of the Vatican and its status as an independent theocratic state. As a sign of good intentions, it was decided to demolish an entire block of Rome and move several palatial facades that prevented the laying of a new wide street – Via della Conciliazione, which later became another symbol of the Eternal City and a sign of the Pontifical See’s unity with Italy. The street, almost close to St. Peter’s Square and therefore to the border of the Vatican, offers an amazing view of the majestic Cathedral. By the way, via della Conciliazione translates from Italian as the street of reconciliation.

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The area around St. Peter’s Cathedral, up to the steps to the temple and the gate guarded by the Swiss Guard, is controlled by the Italian police

Architecture

St. Peter’s Square has a geometrically regular shape consisting of two parts. The oval one is bounded on two sides by colonnades, while the trapezoidal one approaches St. Peter’s Cathedral closely. As in all of his works, Bernini gave his creation a certain meaning. According to his idea, the outstretched arms, resembling bent hands, as if they pick up those who come to the square and direct them to the facade of the basilica. And then, inside the temple, they lead them to the altar. But there is another, more profound interpretation of Bernini’s idea, embedded in his project. In plan, the square, together with the Cathedral, resembles the Key to the Kingdom of Heaven, once given to the Apostle Peter by Jesus.

At the intersection of the axes is an Egyptian obelisk. Around it are light circles of travertine strips, from which eight rays diverge in different directions. At the base of each of them and in the spaces between them in a circle are sixteen marks, indicating the sides of the world and the names of the winds of the Mediterranean. On the right side of the obelisk are sunny disk-shaped markers. They are connected by a straight line extending from the stele to the right colonnade. The dates are written on them, corresponding to the days when exactly at noon the shadow of the obelisk reaches one or another marker.

Egyptian obelisk

The square is paved with a dark stone affectionately called sanspietrino (actually black basalt, or basalt leucite). It is a common fine-grained porphyry rock in the Apennines, known since Roman times.

Monumental colonnades complete the architectural composition. They leave a lasting impression with their monumentality and mesmerizing beauty.

What to see in St. Peter’s Square

Every detail here has either a symbolic meaning, a religious meaning, or is related to some tragedy. For example, in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican there is a memorial sign in the form of a quadrangular marble slab in the place where Pope John Paul II was wounded in 1981. There is also a stone in the shape of a split heart, which only a few people manage to find. According to legend, it appeared after an event related to the Risorgimento. In 1870, during the jubilation of the revolutionaries who occupied the square, a Garibaldi was killed and his blood was spilled on this stone.

The main attraction of the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica is the facade of the basilica itself with the Loggia of Blessing, statues of Christ and the 11 Apostles, the original clock, coats of arms and sculptural compositions.

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Bernini’s Colonnade

The two curved colonnades with entablature and gabled ceiling enclosing St. Peter’s Square are four parallel rows of columns (284 in total) forming three aisles each. Each of the columns of the inner row is crowned by a huge statue depicting one of the 140 saints. Two 120-meter-long wings, Constantine the Great and Charlemagne, connect the colonnades to the cathedral.

If you stand on the marble discs with the inscription CENTRO DEL COLONNATA on either side of the obelisk, you can notice an interesting visual perspective effect conceived by Bernini. Behind the front row of columns hides the other three rows

Behind the right colonnade is the Papal Fountain, decorated with four tiaras and keys. It was designed by Pietro Lombardi almost a century ago.

Statues on the colonnade and facade of St. Peter's Basilica

The Egyptian Obelisk

It was brought to the Eternal City in the first half of the first century as a trophy, at the behest of Emperor Caligula to adorn his Circus. According to legend, the obelisk was a silent witness to the execution of the Apostle Peter, so it became a place of pilgrimage from the early years of Christianity. In the second half of the 16th century, 1,500 years later, the 25-meter obelisk was moved to the square in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral. A bronze globe, in which, contrary to all expectations, no urn with the ashes of Julius Caesar was found, was replaced by a cross. The stele was inscribed and coats of arms were attached. Later, lions and eagles appeared on the facets. Interestingly, the Vatican obelisk was never damaged like the other 12 located in the squares of Rome.

One of the twin fountains

Fountains

Two almost identical fountains with original night illumination attract the attention of tourists. The right one was created by Carlo Modena at the beginning of the 17th century and the left one was repeated by Carlo Fontana more than 60 years later. Their height is 8 meters.

During the drought of the summer of 2017, when the lakes from which water flows to Roman homes began to shallow catastrophically, the Vatican was the first to turn off all its fountains in order to save Rome’s water resources.

Statues in the Piazza

In front of the entrance to St. Peter’s Cathedral are two statues. On the left is St. Peter and on the right is St. Paul.

The statue of St. Peter

Swiss Guards

Members of the Papal Guard are a peculiar landmark of St. Peter’s Square. Their brightly colored striped uniforms attract the eye of anyone who passes by the post. Many people take pictures against the background of the Swiss Guards, and they don’t mind. You can see them at the Bronze Gate in the right colonnade or to the left of the Cathedral.

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Post of Swiss Guards

Special Events in the Vatican’s Main Square

Every Sunday at 12:00 local time, the Pope reads prayers and sermons from the window of his residence, addressing the flock and blessing all those present. Thousands of worshippers come to the square at this time, despite the rain, heat or cold. Only on days when the Pontiff is away from the Vatican does the window remain closed.

In addition, the Public Audiences of the Pope are held directly in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesdays at 10:00 and solemn Masses on Catholic holidays with the obligatory presence of the Swiss Guards, dressed in their unique ceremonial uniforms.

It is completely free to attend Sunday sermons and receive a blessing, to participate in public audiences and celebratory liturgies conducted by the Pope in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. But in the latter two cases, admission to the square requires the purchase of a ticket at the office located in the right colonnade of the square by the Bronze Doors of the entrance to the Apostolic Complex, guarded by Swiss guards.

Every year before the Christmas holidays, a huge fir tree is placed and decorated in the square. Italian regions and countries of the Catholic world compete for the right to supply the Vatican with the green beauty. Next to it, they place presepes – installations depicting biblical scenes from the birth of Jesus Christ. On Christmas night, a “baby” appears in the cradle.

Hours of Operation

St. Peter’s Square is open to visitors daily from 07:00 to 23:00. At night the aisles are closed. On religious holidays, Wednesdays and Sundays mornings the place gathers a great number of believers, so it is advisable to plan a visit for other hours.

Public Audiences of the Pope – Every Wednesday from 10:00; Papal Blessing and Prayer – Every Sunday from 12:00; In case of rain the Audiences may be moved to the Conference Room. When the Pope is absent from the Vatican, services are canceled.

How to get to St. Peter’s Square

Take subway line A to Ottaviano station.

Buses – stop “Piazza del Risorgimento” nos. 23, 32, 81, 590, N11 (night)

Stop. “Crescenzio/Risorgimento” #49, 492, 982, 990, N10 (at night)

Stop. “Cavalleggeri/Fornaci” #64

Stop. “Cavalleggeri/San Pietro” Nos. 34, 46, 881, 982; 190 °F and 916 °F (weekend), 98 and 916 (weekdays only); N5, N15 and N20 (night)

The last stop for streetcar #19 is at the “Piazza del Risorgimento” stop.

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