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St. Peter’s Basilica – Rome, Italy

Catholicism’s most sacred shrine, the sumptuous, marble-clad St. Peter’s Basilica draws pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. It holds hundreds of precious works of art, some salvaged from the original 4th-century basilica built by Emperor Constantine, others commissioned from Renaissance and Baroque artists. The dominant tone is set by Bernini, who created the baldacchino twisting up below Michelangelo’s huge dome.

He also created the cathedra in the apse, with four saints supporting a throne that contains fragments once thought to be relics of the chair from which St. Peter delivered his first sermon.

MICHELANGELO

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The great Florentine artist sculptor architect, poet, and engineer Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was one of the towering figures of the Renaissance. One of his very early works, the Pieta, a technically accomplished masterpiece produced when he was only 25, is in St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo felt that he was primarily a sculptor, but in 1508 he accepted Pope Julius Il’s commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. When it was completed, in 1512, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of the age. In 1546, Michelangelo was appointed chief architect of St. Peter’s Basilica and devoted the last decades of his life to the building.

GIAN LORENZO BERNINI

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This Italian sculptor, architect, set designer, and painter was the outstanding figure of the Baroque era in Italy. Born in Naples in 1598, the son of a sculptor, the young Bernini was quickly acknowledged as having a precocious talent for marble. He became the favorite architect, sculptor, and town planner to three successive popes, and transformed the look of Rome with his churches, palaces, piazzas, statues, and fountains. He worked on various parts of St. Peter’s Basilica for more than 57 years.

RENAISSANCE STYLE

Brunelleschi’s design for the Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419-24) in Florence, with its. Classically inspired slender columns and semicircular arches, ushered in a new era of architecture in Italy. In the following decades, the Renaissance style spread to other urban centers in Italy. The vanguard of the movement relocated to Rome in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. By this point, Renaissance styles had reached most of Europe and even as far as Moscow, via Venice. The Renaissance (or “rebirth”) in building design was intended to be rational and humane. Taking inspiration from the principal elements of architecture—square, cube, circle, and sphere—architects began to plan buildings according to mathematical proportions. Streets were widened and planning led to a focus on monuments and fountains.

Papal Altar

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This stands over the crypt where St. Peter is reputedly buried.

Nave

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Markings on the floor of the nave show how other churches compare in length.

Baldacchino

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Commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1624, Bernini’s extravagant Baroque canopy stands above St. Peter’s tomb.

Michelangelo’s Pieta

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Protected by glass since an attack in 1972, this beautiful marble sculpture of Mary holding the dead Christ was created in 1499.

Monument to Pope Alexander VII

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Bernini’s last work in St. Peter’s was finished in 1678 and shows the Chigi pope a rnong the allegorical figures of Truth, Justice, Charity, and Prudence.

Piazza San Pietro

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On Sundays, and on special occasions such as religious festivals and canonizations, the pope blesses the crowds from a ba lcony overlooking Bernini’ s colonnaded square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Staircase

537 narrow steps lead to the summit of the dome.

Dome of St. Peter’s

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The 448-ft ( 136.5-m) high Renaissance dome was designed by Michelangelo, although it was not completed in his lifetime.

Grottoes

A fragment of a 13thcentury mosaic by Giotto, salvaged from the old basilica, can be found in the Grottoes, where many popes are buried.

Statue of St Peter

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The extended foot of this 13th-century bronze statue has worn thin and shiny from the touch of pilgrims over the centuries.

Facade Statues

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The facade is topped by 13 travertine stone statues depicting Christ, John the Baptist, and 11 of the Apostles.

Filarete Doors

These bronze doors from the old basilica were decorated with biblical reliefs by Filarete between 1439 and 1445.

Holy Door

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This entrance is only used in Holy Years.

HISTORICAL PLAN OF ST. PETER’S BASILICA

St. Peter was buried in AD 64 in a necropolis near his crucifixion site in the Circus of Nero. Constantine built a basilica on the burial site in 324. In the 15th century, the old church was found to be unsafe and had to be demolished. It was rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1614, the facade was ready, and in 1626 the new church was consecrated.

ST. PETER

One of the most important and revered saints, Peter was one of the first two disciples of Christ. Peter’s apostolate brought him to Rome in AD 44, where he established the Church of Rome. The saint is traditionally associated with two keys, one for Earth and one for heaven.

KEY DATES

AD 64: St. Peter is crucified and buried in Rome.
324: Roman Emperor Constantine builds a basilica ever the tomb of St. Peter.
1506: Pope Julius II lays the first stone of a new basilica.
1546: Michelangelo is appointed chief architect.
1980: The properties of the Holy See join the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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