St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica takes its name from St. Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus who was the first bishop of Rome and, thus, the first in the line of papal succession that continues today. The basilica is one of four major basilicas in Rome, and is the most dominant structure in all of Vatican City.
St. Peter's is a basilica, not a cathedral, because it is not the seat of a bishop. Basilicas, by definition, are large or important churches upon which the pope has conferred special ceremonial rites. St. Peter's certainly fits that bill in size alone, covering nearly six acres of land and being able to hold some 60,000 people.
Visiting St. Peter's Basilica is a must for anyone interested in architecture or art. The building itself bears the fingerprints of Michelangelo, and countless treasured masterworks are housed inside. The sheer expanses of marble in the place are astounding.
The building that you can tour today is not St. Peter's Basilica in its original form. The first structure was a 350-foot-long, fourth-century church built over a small shrine that was believed to mark St. Peter's burial place. This original basilica was neglected over the years, and was badly in need of repair by the late 1400s. It was Pope Julius II, in 1505, who finally decided to raze the original structure and build a new one. He held a contest to find the best design, and the work that began under his reign continued well into the 1600s, with a large number of religious leaders and artisans contributing to the building that stands in Vatican City today.
Is the dome at St. Peter's Basilica the tallest in the world? Yes, it is. At its highest point, it rises 448 feet above the floor. It's a massive structure, too, not just in height alone. The dome's internal diameter is 136 feet, the length of a twelve- or thirteen-story building if it were laid on its side.
Most famous in this group is Michelangelo, who, in 1547, took over the building program at St. Peters while it was in a state of mid-construction. Michelangelo thus did not conceive the massive dome that impresses so many visitors today, but he did help to execute its construction and in doing so lent his own artistic sensibilities to its design.
The grand fa çade on the outside of St. Peter's Basilica came later, under the watch of Baroque architect Carlo Maderna. It is made of travertine stone with massive Corinthian columns, all of which create a dominant presence as you approach the basilica from St. Peter's Square outside.
As of this writing, cameras are allowed inside St. Peter's Basilica, but you usually won't be allowed to use a flash. Many visitors try to lie down on the ground and take a photograph looking up at the massive dome, but this is forbidden. Security guards will insist that you get back up immediately, whether you've clicked the shutter or not.
Tombs, Artworks, and Relics
You could spend an entire lifetime studying the tombs, artworks, and relics located within St. Peter's Basilica. Ninety-one popes are buried here, including Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. There are a pair of holy water basins that date to the early 1700s, Michelangelo's statue Piet à (which depicts a grieving but graceful Mary holding the limp body of Jesus after the crucifixion), and dozens of statues that each tell a part religious history and tradition.
Unless you are a religious scholar, you probably won't be able to understand or appreciate everything you're seeing without a guide. It doesn't cost anything to walk into the basilica for a self-guided tour, or you can pay 10 for a guided look at the excavations around St. Peter's tomb. Reservations must be made at least a week in advance. Contact the Ufficio Scavi at 06 698 85 318 or email@example.com. The gift shop on site has entire books describing the sculptures and basilica itself if you would prefer to buy that and work your way around at your own pace. If you want to read such a book during your plane ride over to Italy, shop online at the Vatican's website,