The visitor is likely to wonder when construction of the Piazza San Pietro was begun and when it was completed. An answer to either question would seem impossible. The Piazza as such was never 'begun'; it evolved gradually. Nor is it ever quite complete in the sense that nothing remains to be done, if only because of the constant repairs and maintenance required. Moreover, there is always place for improvements and addition, even now.
It could of course be objected that the square is the creation of the architectural genius Bernini who designed and built the magnificent colonnades, and that therefore the square come into existence in 1666, upon the completion of the colonnades. But ages before Bernini came onto the scene, indeed before St Peter was in Rome, the area existed, even if simply as an open space of fields and vineyards, gradually sloping up the hill called the Mons Vaticanus, the Vatican Hill.
Nowadays, when people hear of the 'Vatican' they almost automatically think of St. Peter's Basilica and of the buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Piazza San Pietro, unaware perhaps that the name was used long ago, in reference to the slope where pagan burial monuments lay side by side with the Circus of Emperors Caligula and Nero. It was in this Circus that St Peter had been crucified, and it was on this Vatican Hill that he had been buried, alone amid the pagan tombs. Many of these pagan burial monuments can still be seen by the pilgrim who is fortunate enough to obtain permission for a visit to the excavations under St. Peter's Basilica, as they slowly approach the very spot where St. Peter was buried.
It is worth noting that the first Basilica of St. Peter was built in the year 349 A.D. by Emperor Constantine, precisely over the simple memorial that covered the burial place. For Constantine's construction, tons of earth had to be moved, so as to create a level space in the slope of the hill, and a number of pagan burial monuments were filled in with earth. Hence, even then the area in front of this slope, now St. Peter's Square, began to have a certain meaning and significance.
In the course of its evolution the Piazza was intended to lend beauty and importance to the Basilica of St. Peter, to which it now is, in a way, the main entrance or final approach. When, before the middle of the fourth century, Emperor Constantine undertook the immense labor to prepare for the building of the first basilica, the church was to mark the spot where St. Peter had been buried.
Like the enormous aisles within the basilica, ready to accommodate thousands of pilgrims on solemn occasions and on everyday visits, the Piazza San Pietro too was intended, not only to enhance the beauty of the church, the shrine over St. Peter's tomb, but also to embrace within its arms all those who come, from every corner of the earth, of all races and ethnic origins, of every faith and religion. Only adversaries of Christ and His Cross are told to stay away, as can be seen from an inscription placed long ago on the base of the obelisk which is the central monument of the square.
Inasmuch as the whole Piazza developed around this obelisk, the latter could be considered as the 'first stone' in the formation of the actual square. This granite Egyptian obelisk was originally ordered by Nencoreus, King of Egypt. Later a Roman Governor in Egypt, by the name of Gallo, dedicated it to Caesar (son of Julius) in 30 B.C. It was brought to Rome in 37 A.D., and was moved to its present site in 1586. The great labor involved in moving the obelisk to a place in front of the projected new Basilica of St. Peter was undertaken mainly to get it away from what was thought to have been the center of Nero's Circus, the place where St. Peter and many other Christians, both before and after him, had been put to death for professing the Christian faith.
When at last moved, the obelisk with its engraved dedication to Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, received further engravings on its new base by its mover, Pope Sixtus V, with encouragements to all Christians, condemnations of heathen cults, and warnings to adversaries of the Cross. It is interesting to note that the moving of the obelisk took place at the height of the Reformation.
Even though the entire development of the Piazza was a gradual process of evolution one could say that St. Peter's Square really came into its own when, eighty years after the moving of the obelisk, it was given its present shape by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from Naples. In a period of only eleven years, Bernini constructed the forest of columns that go to make up the famous Bernini colonnades. In the very year of his election, Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) asked Bernini to draft a plan for the Piazza. The first stone was laid two years later, and the colonnaded of 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters were finished in 1666. Inscriptions in honour of Pope Alexander, to be seen everywhere above the colonnades, surmounted by his papal coat of arms, show the date of completion.
The obelisk, however, was the core around which the present Piazza developed. The only other item that had been introduced before the colonnades were built was the north fountain (at the right when one faces the basilica). This fountain, replacing a much older one that had been built in 1490 at the request of Pope Innocent VIII, was designed and built by Carlo Maderno in 1612, under the patronage of Pope Paul V, the Borghese Pope who also saw to the construction of the fašade of the basilica. The fountain was meant to commemorate the fact that Pope Paul V had restored an ancient aqueduct, replenishing thereby the very inadequate water supply of the city with a new one, appropriately referred to even now as the Acqua Paola. The new fountain was shaped differently, and certainly had a much more powerful jet of water, fed as it was from the higher Janiculum Hill nearby, though more distantly from Lake Bracciano, about forty miles north of Rome.
The fountain on the left, or south side, required by the demands of symmetry, was ordered by Pope Clement X (1670-1676), and built by Carlo Fontana, a nephew of Carlo Maderno, the builder of the north fountain. Fontana's fountain was finished in 1675. Present inscriptions on its base show that the reigning Pope Paul VI had the fountain restored in 1967, the fourth of his pontificate. This restoration has made it possible to see again, though still rather vaguely, the stars of the coat of arms of Pope Clement X, of the Altieri family.
The four seven-branched candelabra were constructed at the request of Pope Pius IX in the year 1852, eighteen years before Garibaldi's armies entered Rome, abolishing the papal states. This same Pope created the fairly large traffic-free circle around the obelisk by means of a great number of short granite posts. Within this circle, built into the pavement, is a rosa dei venti, consisting of oval slabs of white marble that indicate the points of the compass, as our illustrations show.
Another interesting item in the pavement is the semita meridiana, the 'noon-day line' in white marble, with at differing distances seven white marble discs bearing the signs of the zodiac. The line begins fairly close to the obelisk, on the north side, with the zodiacal constellation of the Crab, indicating the summer solstice on the 21st of June, and it ends with the constellation of the Capricorn or Goat, indicating the winter solstice on December 22. The whole is part of a huge sundial. For instance, when the sun is at high noon on June 21, the shadow of the tip of the obelisk will fall on that particular slab. As an inscription on the northern side of the very lowest part of the obelisk's base indicates, the semita meridiana was placed in the pavement in 1817 by Pietro Maccaranio, the supervisor of the Vatican's material installations, who paid for it aere proprio - with his own pennies, for public convenience.
The more formidable granite stubs immediately surrounding the obelisk were placed there by Pope Innocent XIII (1721-1724). To record this for history, the 'eagle-held-in-check', or much more beautifully in Italian, the aquila scaccata, of this Pope's coat of arms was sculpted into the posts, as again can be seen from our photographs. The same aquila scaccata is seen in bronze at the bottom of the obelisk itself, adorned with festoons of flowers and leaves. It is said that earlier decorations in metal on the foot of the obelisk had been taken away by soldiers at the Sack of Rome, while the obelisk was still in its earlier location in the Circus of Nero. Certain is that the ball of bronze which was at that time on the top of the obelisk showed signs that it had been used as a practice target by the soldiers.
Even though cobblestones can still be hard on weary feet, the paving of the entire Piazza, now a great deal more comfortable tan the original rough, hard, and uneven earth, deserves honorable mention. It is strange that no emblem or coat of arms records this contribution by Innocent XIII.s successor, Pope Benedict XIII (1724-1730), of the Orsini family. The books mention only that he spent on this project the then 'fabulous sum of 80,000 scudi'. However, inside the Vatican buildings, his coat of arms appears on the wing of the Belvedere courtyard, an edifice which houses the Vatican library. A former Dominican, 'Papa' Orsini was evidently a man of learning, but interested too in the material well-being of pilgrims and visitors to Vatican City.
The large statues of Saints Peter and Paul to the left and right of the graceful steps leading to the basilica were constructed by order of Pope Pius IX, in 1847, a few years before this same Pope had the four bronze candelabra placed around the obelisk. He also arranged for the construction of the wide steps going up to the portico, or vestibule, and gave the fan-like shape to the central ramp that leads up to the main entrance.
A final word should be said about the principal approach to the Piazza. Bernini had envisaged a gate as the entrance to the square, with the then existing sets of narrow streets, the 'borghi', leading to the gate. He reasoned that the visitor should be faced suddenly with the beauty of the square and the basilica.
The gate never materialized, and the narrow streets of Bernini's time were transformed hundreds of years later. Entire buildings or palazzi were transported piece by piece, in 1937 by Mussolini, to commemorate the conclusion of the Lateran Pact or Concordat, a treaty of conciliation between Church and State. The resulting wide boulevard, the Via della Conciliazione, now provides a majestic approach to the Piazza and the Basilica of St. Peter, along which the visitor begins the realization of his hopes and expectations.
Just at the end of this broad boulevard, lined with modern obelisks surmounted by street lamps, the road widens out to a large rectangle where a set of buildings was constructed by Pope Pius XII on the occasion of the Jubilee Year of 1950. These buildings house a number of Congregations or departments of the Roman pontifical administration.
Let us now see the list of the principal actors in the history of the development of the Piazza. After that, we shall take a closer look at the various elements that go to make up the beauty of the Piazza San Pietro.
The principal actors in the story of the square
Sixtus V, 1585-1590.
Felice Peretti (native of Grottamare)
Paul V, 1605-1621.
Camillo Borghese (native of Rome)
Urban VIII, 1623-1644.
Maffeo Barberini (native of Florence)
Alexander VII, 1655-1667.
Fabio Chigi (native of Siena)
Clement X, 1670-1676.
Emilio Altieri (native of Rome)
Innocent XIII, 1721-1724.
Michelangelo dei Conti (native of Rome)
Benedict XIII, 1724-1730.
Pietro Francesco Orsini (native of Rome)
Pius IX, 1846-1878.
Giovanni Maria Mastai-Feretti (native of Senigallia)
Giacomo della Porta
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The various elements
that make up the square
The granite posts
immediately surrounding the obelisk
The north fountain
The south fountain
The statues of Saints
Peter and Paul
The Via della Conciliazione
The new buildings
at the entrance of the square
The wall leading to the Castel Sant' Angelo, and the Castle itself
The four-tiara fountain
The Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the Piazza is a monolyth, a single block of granite, the only one in Rome without any hieroglyphs. The most intact obelisk that has come down to us from antiquity, it is about 85 feet high, and weighs more than 330 tons.
As the historian Pliny records, it had been ordered by Nencoreus, King of Egypt, also named Ferone, who, after having regained his eyesight, intended to dedicate it to the Sun. This same Pliny tells us that Gaius Caesar, one of Nero's predecessors, brought it to Rome from Heliopolis in the year 37 A.D. He also describes the amazing ship, especially built for this transport, that carried the obelisk to Ostia, the port of Rome. The ship was later sunk in that harbor and then served as the foundation of its lighthouse "which for the convenience of sailors served as a beacon during the night".
Once the obelisk had arrived in Rome, it was placed in the Circus of Gaius (nicknamed Caligula) and Nero, a sort of race course for chariots, to the left of the present Basilica of St. Peter, near what is now the Sacristy building. The Circus seems to have been somewhat the same size and shape as the Circus Maximus near the Baths of Caracalla, now the famous site for open-air performances of Aida, Tosca, and other operas, in the Roman summer.
The obelisk, still bearing Caligula's inscription dedicating it to the memory of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, was the only one in Rome to remain standing from the time of its being put in place in the first century until 1586 when it was moved to its present site. Numerous others had either been ruined by vandals or had fallen into decay.
The full story of the obelisk requires much more space than we can dedicate to it on our pictorial tour of the Piazza, but some interesting details should be added here.
In the very year of his election, Pope Sixtus V, at the age of 65, authorized a competition to he held for the removal of the obelisk. We should mention that more than a hundred years earlier, thought had been given to moving the obelisk, but it was then considered impossible, because "no engineer had undertaken such a gigantic task since early Roman times". Of course, if in more primitive times it could have been taken down in Egypt, transported from there to Rome, and set up again, we are tempted to ask why it should not be possible to move the monolith a few hundred yards centuries later. But even the great Michelangelo had judged such a move impossible, though during his time too, many had thought that it would be more fitting to move the 'pagan' monument to a central point in Christian surroundings. It was in the immediate vicinity of the obelisk's old location that St. Peter and many other Christians both before and after him were put to death.
Hundreds of artists, architects, engineers, even soothsayers and others entered the competition for moving the obelisk. Not unexpectedly, the Pope's favorite Domenico Fontana was declared the winner. Actually, before his election to the papacy, Sixtus V had already used Fontana's services for various other enterprises. But the architect still had to prove scientifically that the work could be done. By means of a leaden model and complete miniature scaffolding, Fontana designed and demonstrated a system that was supposed to make it possible to lower the obelisk, move it to another site, and raise it in its new place onto a solid foundation of a number of granite supports.
While his uncle, Giacomo della Porta, the Pope's chief architect, was engaged in the continuing construction of the basilica, more or less according to the original design of Michelangelo, Domenico Fontana anxiously prepared for the move of the obelisk. At last, in 1586 everything was ready. The scaffolding built up around the obelisk proved strong enough to lift the giant from its base once a lot of the surrounding earth had been removed. With the aid of more than eight hundred workers, a hundred horses, and forty windlasses, the monument, all wrapped up in protective materials, was lowered to the ground, coming to rest in a horizontal position. Moving the scaffolding as well as the obelisk to its prospective site took about five months, and on September 15, 1586, the feast of the elevation of the Cross, it was hoisted up again and gently lowered onto the backs of four bronze lions (part of the coat of arms of Pope Sixtus V), resting on top of the prepared foundations. A closer look will reveal that the four lions each have two bodies, with intertwining tails. One the lower part of the obelisk's base, facing the north fountain, once can read the recording of Fontana's achievement, in Latin: "Domenicus Fontana ex pago mili agri novo comensis transtulit et erexit". Translated into English: "Domenico Fontana, from the town of Melide in a new district around Como, transferred this, and set it up again." The Pope, in his gratitude, bestowed a variety of honors on Fontana, rewarded him abundantly with a great sum of 'scudi', granted him an annual pension, and gave him permission to autograph this and all his future achievements in large letters. Fontana was also authorized henceforth to handle all the finances for the Pope's future architectural enterprises, except those directly connected with the basilica. After the Pope's death, Fontana, accused by jealous rivals of misappropriating public funds, fell into disgrace and was dismissed by Sixtus V's successor. He moved to Naples, where the Viceroy immediately employed Fontana's services. In Naples, Fontana wrote a book about the transfer of the Vatican obelisk, an enterprise that had astounded scientists everywhere, had even touched the hearts of poets who hailed the epic in their writings, and had been a worthwhile addition to Fontana's enriching experiences.
Though not recorded in the documents of the Vatican archives, a rather humorous anecdote is connected with the move of the obelisk. To ensure that the large crowd, gathered to witness Fontana's feat, would not disturb the enormous concentration required by all who were engaged in the enterprise, the Pope had commanded complete silence, under pain of excommunication. Realizing that at the most critical moment in the raising of the obelisk, the ropes were about to burn through, a sailor in the crowd yelled at the top of his voice, 'Put water on the ropes". The obelisk was saved, and so was the sailor's life within the Church of Rome. As a reward, he asked that his hometown of Bordighera on the Italian Riviera might henceforth supply palms to the Vatican for the feast of Palm Sunday. Reportedly, the palms still come from Bordighera.
Caligula's inscription, dedicating the obelisk after its arrival in Rome to the memory of his predecessors, Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, can be rather indistinctly seen on the bottom part of the obelisk itself, on the side facing the basilica, as also on the opposite side. Ironically, in 1962 it was discovered that these inscriptions had also served to wipe out the memory of an earlier Roman official (later fallen into disgrace) who had dedicated the obelisk to Caesar sometime around 30 B.C. while the obelisk was still in Egypt.
On the base of the obelisk are inscriptions by Pope Sixtus V, proclaiming Christ's rule and victory on the Cross, with a petition that God's people may be protected from evil. The base of the obelisk carries on the north and south side some inscriptions recording the fact that Pope Sixtus V moved this monument, which once had been dedicated to the cult of pagan gods. The east side calls upon those who are hostile to the Cross to take flight, 'for the Lion of Judah conquers'.
We thus find in these inscriptions some explanation and reason why Pope Sixtus was so interested in digging up obelisks elsewhere in the city too, and putting them up again in some of the city's main areas. These obelisks were for him the remaining symbols of pagan cults which had to be exorcized and Christianized.
To a casual visitor who reads these observations and the inscriptions, the obelisk may be just one more monument to be added to the list of objects seen. But for the more historically minded visitor in Rome it is interesting to know what the enormous feat of moving the Vatican obelisk from one site to another took place at the height of the Reformation, only twenty years after the closing of the Council of Trent, which had been convoked to check the process of the Reformation.
On the other hand, the tourist with a sense of city-planning will be delighted to know that Sixtus V was the same Pope who ordered some of the other obelisks now standing in Rome to be dug up from their Roman resting places, and set up at some of the principal points in the network of streets he projected in areas that were as yet uninhabited. These streets now form a link between the major basilicas. The Via Sistina, a fashionable shopping street leading ultimately to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, is one of the streets in this planned network. Obviously, it is named after Pope Sixtus.
The obelisk near the Basilica of St. Mary Major, on the Esquiline Hill, was the next to go up, in 1587. The following year saw the rise of the obelisk on the present Piazza del Popolo, and yet another year later, the obelisk near the Basilica of St. John was placed there. Except for the Vatican obelisk, these were all taken from different other places in the city, where they had fallen into decay.
It may be of interest to mention some of the other contributions of this Pope and his favorite architect, Domenico Fontana which, if they were all enumerated here, would yield sufficient evidence that Cardinal Felice Peretti (Montalto), before being elected to the papacy and adopting the name of Sixtus, had planned many of his numerous material achievements well in advance. With his projected city development (the street-plans of which even now serve to facilitate the circulation of traffic), an increased need or water supplies was foreseen. To provide for this, the Pope gave orders, immediately after his election, to begin the restoration of the ancient aqueduct built in the year 230 by Emperor Alexander Severus. The 'Moses fountain' next to the Grand Hotel was set up as a monument to commemorate the completion of this project. Even today, this water, which comes all the way from Palestrina to Rome, is referred to as the Acqua Felice. Along with these civic developments, the former Felice Peretti, now Pope Sixtus V, also built the Sistine Loggia in the Basilica of St. John Lateran; he built additions to the Quirinal Palace, then the papal summer residence, and now the President's palace; he enlarged the Lateran Palace and the Vatican Palace; and he added the Sistine Chapel to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, mostly aided by the expertise of Domenico Fontana. He had another ambition fulfilled when the status of Saints Peter and Paul replaced those of Emperors Trajan and Marcus Aurelius on their respective columns in the city. A Franciscan monk of peasant origin, Pope Sixtus V was obviously a person of enormous energy. He died in 1590, at the age of 70.
Before leaving the obelisk we should remark that the short stubby columns surmounted by a star, which crown the obelisk, are sometimes said to have been placed there by Pope Alexander VII after Bernini had completed the colonnades ordered by this Pope. Even if it is true that these figures do resemble part of his coat of arms (visible over the entrances at the beginning and end of the colonnades), it is much more likely that they have their origin with Pope Sixtus V, who had the obelisk moved. At any rate, these symbols appear also in his coat of arms!
At the foot of the obelisk one can see the bronze 'eagle-held-in-check' or aquila scaccata from the coat of arms of Pope Innocent XIII who built the large granite posts immediately surrounding the obelisk. These granite posts show the same aquila scaccata sculptured into them at the top.
As was mentioned earlier, on the north side of the lowest part of the base of the obelisk is an inscription that in 1817 Pietro Maccaranio built the semita meridiana, with the obelisk as the style in a huge sun-dial.
Having completed our inspection of the first of the Piazza's monuments, and having heard some of the history of the first principal actors in the story of the square, let us amble over to the north fountain, to the right of the obelisk when facing the basilica.
As we mentioned in our second chapter, where we described the genesis and historical development of the Piazza, the north fountain was the only item built between the raising of the obelisk in its new location and the construction of the colonnades. It replaced a much older fountain that had been built there in 1490 by Pope Innocent VIII. The present fountain was constructed by Carlo Maderno in 1612, at the commission of Pope Paul V of the Borghese family, whose coat of arms consists of an eagle and dragon, contained in an oval shape. Both the eagle and the dragon, though separately, can be clearly seen, sculpted into the base of the fountain.
The occasion for building this new fountain was the fact that Pope Paul V, like Sixtus V before him, had restored an ancient water supply, the source of which is about forty miles north of Rome, near Lake Bracciano. Once this new supply of water reached the city, the water coming from it was justly named the Acqua Paola, a welcome added source of much needed water. It still retains that name.
The new fountain differed somewhat in shape from the older one, and with its upturned basin at the top, was much more gracious. Also, since the water came down to the square from the higher Janiculum Hill nearby, there was much greater pressure on the outlets below, so that a beautiful strong plume of water now spouts up, and having feathered, falls via a mushroom-shaped shelf into a granite basin first, and then into the lower hexagonal basin. The lights, installed more recently in this basin, lend even greater beauty to the fountain in the evenings.
If we now turn to the immense fašade of the basilica, and remember that this work was begun and completed during the pontificate of Pope Paul V, we begin to understand that many of the artistic achievements of Sixtus V were well matched by Pope Paul V. This Pope also completed the additions to the Quirinal Palace in 1614. In the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the grandeur of the earlier Sistine Chapel is paralleled by Paul V's Borghese Chapel on the opposite side, even though this may be rather over decorated. This same Pope also restored many churches, and built some quite impressive fountains, the best known of which, apart from our north fountain, is the Fontana Paolina on the Janiculum Hill, a fitting monument to commemorate the completion of the new forty mile long aqueduct carrying the Acqua Paolina to Rome. To the modern mind, the building of such monuments may seem a bit like 'papal triumphalism'. It may appear as some kind of rivalry between past popes. Whatever the value of such anachronistic judgments, the civic contributions of the papacy were at that time deemed worthy of commemoration.
Carlo Maderno, once appointed chief architect of St. Peter's Basilica, succeeding his uncle Domenico Fontana, continued the rebuilding of parts of the basilica under the patronage of Pope Paul V. The fašade which, as a sort of giant backdrop to the Piazza, forms an important element of the square, was designed by Carlo Maderno in 1607. However, in many particulars he had to fit it to the original designs of Michelangelo. In 1614 the fašade was completed.
Everyone will agree that the fašade is a very imposing enclosure on the western end of the square. Perhaps too imposing? Its width is about 390 feet, while its height is a disproportionate 150 feet. Criticism has been expressed frequently about the enormous width; it has been said that it is too crammed with all sorts of details. The attic has been judged the worst feature. And so on. We shall not try to provide justifications or defence for Carlo Maderno. Only, it should be borne in mind that he had to fit his construction to the earlier plans of Michelangelo. Actually, as will be seen in the descriptions of the colonnades, the facades over-imposing character was later modified by Bernini through very clever architectural finesse.
The inscriptions of the fašade, carrying in huge letters the name of the Borghese Pope, Paul V, leave no doubt about who commissioned this work. High above the central entrance to the portico or vestibule of the basilica we can see the full Borghese crest of eagle and dragon, just above the lettering.
Higher still, lined up on top of the fašade, are the statues of Christ, John the Baptist, and the apostles, though that of St. Peter is lacking.
Below the Borghese name is the famous loggia from which each newly elected Pope gives his first blessing to the world. The balcony also serves for the papal blessing 'Urbi et Orbi' on such solemn occasions as Easter Sunday.
Immediately below the loggia is a bas-relief, depicting Christ entrusting the keys to St. Peter, a work of Ambrogio Bonvicino.
The central entrance to the portico is flanked to the left and right by a grilled metal gate which carries the coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII, the Barberini Pope who later appointed Bernini as chief architect of St. Peter's.
Further again, to the right and left, are two more grilled doorways which, like their neighbors, resemble a fine filigree work when looked at from the darker portico into the sunlit square.
The entire portico or vestibule, Carlo Maderno's masterpiece, glitters again with the name and coat of arms of Pope Paul V. The central bronze doors that give entrance to the basilica itself are marked with this Pope's name, and were restored by him in the fifteenth year of his pontificate, 1620. These doors, actually saved from the previous basilica building, and slightly adapted to fit the entrance to the new one, had been ordered by Pope Eugene IV in 1433 from Antonio Averulino, popularly known as Filarete, to commemorate the Council of Florence. This Council, illustrations of which can be seen on the narrow strips of bronze between the panels, had, at least temporarily, put an end to the Great Schism between East and West. Filarete labored on this set of doors for twelve years.
The bronze doors to the right are by Venanzo Crocetti. Those to the far left are the creation of the distinguished artist Giacomo Manz¨. To replace the wooden doors between these two entrances, another set of bronze doors is still awaited. All of them are the result of a competition invited by Pope Pius XII, in preparation for the Jubilee Year of 1950.
Manz¨ was also the artist responsible for the large rectangular escutcheon in the middle of the portico pavement. It was ordered by Pope John XXIII, to commemorate the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.
There are two further points of major interest inside the portico. Above its central entrance, on the inside, rather difficult to see, is a heavily restored mosaic by the famous mediaeval artist Giotto, who magnificent works of art draw thousands to see his frescoes in Assisi, Padua, and above all Florence. This particular mosaic depicts the 'Navicella' or little boat, and records the incident of Peter's walking on the sea of Galilee to meet Christ.
At the far left of the entrance, a fine equestrian statue of Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor in the old basilica, not far from the entrance.
But now we must go back to our subject, the Piazza San Pietro. Pope Paul V died in 1621, and his chief architect, Carlo Maderno, who had finished the portico in 1622, went to his rest in 1629, at the age of 73.
The colonnades, giving shape and form and size to the Piazza San Pietro, were completed in 1666, eighty years after the obelisk had been raised in the open space in front of the basilica.
In 1655, the very year of his election (and at the age of 56) Pope Alexander VII, the former Fabio Chigi from a rich banking family in Siena, commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to draft a plan for the colonnades. Bernini was then almost 58. The first stone was laid two years later, in 1657, though work began in earnest only in 1659. The colonnades of 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters were finished in 1666, as the inscriptions in honor of Pope Alexander show. These inscriptions at either entrance to the colonnades bear only part of the Chigi coat of arms, a number of stubby columns, crowned by a star. Over the central entrances, however, the full crest appears, as can be seen also from our photographs.
Except for a part on the north side, where the Vatican wall leads to the Castel Sant' Angelo, there is no significant background to the colonnades. Inside the square, when the visitor is standing precisely on one of the porphyry discs that indicate the focal points of the ellipse (the discs are marked Centro del Colonnato), he or she gets the impression that the square is outlined by a single, instead of a quadruple file of columns. From every other angle one sees a veritable forest of columns where it is pleasant to walk along, sit and rest, meditate, take shelter from the rain or from the sun, to read, or to write letters home. A true meeting place for Romans and visitors alike. When walking along in one of the three aisles within the colonnades the visitor senses that the long curve of the colonnades creates the feeling of expectation as to what may appear next. At the same time, there is a distinct sensation of peace, rest and quiet.
The northern arm of the colonnades leads along the Vatican wall to the ceremonial entrance of the Vatican Palace, where official groups enter for papal audiences, and where reporters can sometimes be seen, waiting for a possible scoop. This is one of the places where Swiss guars are on duty during the day, in front of the Scala Regia, a magnificent staircase, also built by Bernini, between 1663 and 1666, while the construction of the colonnades was in full progress.
Walking along the passageways within the northern colonnade the visitor can see the Vatican wall, and just at the foot of it, the charming fountain of the four tiaras which we shall describe later, when giving some information on the wall that leads from the Vatican Palace to the Castel Sant' Angelo.
When he designed the colonnades, Bernini had to connect them with the basilica, and thus the Piazza somehow had to incorporate the fašade with its loggia. He did this by means of a set of added corridors, topped with 26 huge statues on either side. The effect of the optical illusion, which he created by having the corridors widen out towards the fašade instead of narrowing down, is often described as a magnificent display of Bernini's architectural genius. It was in this way that he modified the appearance of the fašade. The basilica seems to be brought forward instead of receding into the distance, with the height of the fašade stressed at the expense of its considerable width. The visitor is bound to notice that it takes him quite a bit longer than expected to reach the basilica.
The eighty-eight statues of saints and martyrs (each about ten feet high) on top of the colonnades were designed by disciples of Bernini, as were the fifty-two statues on top of the corridors leading to the basilica.
From almost every corner of the Piazza the visitor can see the high Vatican Palace where the Pope's private apartments are located. At the second window from the right on the top floor the Pope appears every Sunday at noon to speak to the crowds gathered below, to pray with them, and to give them his blessing. This ceremony does not take place in the summer, when the Pope moves to Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills.
For the lover of statistics, we might mention that the colonnades are almost 63 feet high. The width of the Piazza enclosed by the colonnades is about 490 feet, while the total length up to the basilica is almost 654 feet.
Pope Alexander VII rightly considered Bernini as a man of genius, and gave him full permission to produce as many monuments as circumstances, time, and funds would permit. It would be too much of a distraction to enumerate here all the additions that Bernini made to the baroque beauty of Rome. Let it merely be mentioned that it was he who had built the magnificent baldacchino over the basilica's main altar between 1626 and 1633; he constructed the Chigi chapels on the Piazza del Popolo and the cathedral in Pope Alexander's birthplace, Siena. He built the famous fountains in the Piazza Navona in Rome, and he also designed and executed the statue of Pope Alexander VII over the latter's tomb in the basilica.
Many more interesting items in the lives of Pope Alexander and Bernini could be told, but we must bring our text to a conclusion with some short references to the various monuments put up by Pope Pius IX, and to the Vatican Wall, with at its far end the Castel Sant' Angelo. But first, let us pass by the south fountain, to keep somewhat to the chronological order in the evolution of the Piazza.
Once the Piazza had received its shape through the completion of the Bernini colonnades, it became obvious that the north fountain should have a companion at the opposite side. Since the colonnaded part of the square is elliptical in shape there are really two focal points as has been mentioned. The north fountain near the one focal point looked positively odd by itself. Or, at least, so decided Pope Clement X. In his desire for symmetry, and as his contribution to the continued development of the Piazza he ordered Carlo Fontana (nephew of Carlo Maderno, and great-nephew of Domenico Fontana) to design a copy of the north fountain, and have it placed in the corresponding position on the south side of the square. Duly engraved with the Altieri coat of arms of six stars as an inverted pyramid, contained in an egg-shaped form, the fountain was completed in 1675, the year of Pope Clement's death.
The coat of arms can still be vaguely seen on the south side of the fountain's base. But this fountain was much more exposed to the winds and weather, and apparently much more affected by the constant flow of water than its older companion on the north side, and so with the erosion of the years and covering of moss, the fountain needed restoration. This was done by the present Pope, Paul VI, in 1967, the fourth year of his pontificate, as can be seen from the inscription on the east and west sides of the base of the fountain. Many visitors, when reading the present Pope's name on the rather old-looking fountain, have wondered how it could age so quickly!
We have already mentioned on several occasions that the statues of Saints Peter and Paul, flanking the gracious sweep of steps leading up to the basilica, were constructed in 1847 by order of Pope Pius IX. He also commissioned the steps themselves, together with the fanning central ramp. The four bronze seven-branched candelabra were ordered in 1852 by this same Pope. The dates of the two statues and the bronze candelabra can be seen, inscribed on the base of these monuments. The 'traffic-free circle' around the obelisk, made up of a great number of short stubby granite posts, was also created by Pope Pius IX. He could have hardly foreseen how grateful the present visitor to the Piazza would be when there would be a veritable deluge of buses, cars, and motor scooters, often endangering the lives of rubber-necking strollers and devout pilgrims.
Pope Pius IX was the longest reigning Pope (1846-1878), outlasting even St. Peter by two years, through perhaps not the most successful. With the invasion of the papal states by Garibaldi's armies in 1870, he saw the end of the temporal power of the papacy. At the time of Emperor Constantine, who built the first basilica in the fourth century, the power over ecclesiastical affairs had been practically handed over to the Emperor. Gradually this situation changed, and more and more of the temporal powers had passed into the hands of the Popes. Now, under Pope Pius IX, this came to an end as far as Italy was concerned, while in many other countries it had become fashionable to be anticlerical. On September 20, 1870, just a few months after the end of the First Vatican Council, Garibaldi's troops entered Rome. In early October of that year, the plebiscite held in Rome favored union with the Kingdom of Italy. The papal states thus ceased to exist, and the Pope, then virtually a prisoner of the Vatican, lost his territorial claims. To a limited extent these were restored by the Lateran Treaty in 1929.
To commemorate this latter event, as was mentioned in our second chapter, Mussolini in 1937 built the new Via della Conciliazione, opening up the approach to St. Peter's Square and the Basilica of St. Peter.
Both the boulevard and the actual Piazza San Pietro have profited from the further addition of the modern buildings constructed in a wide rectangle by Pope Pius XII in the Jubilee Year of 1950. As has been said earlier, these buildings house several of the Roman Congregations that form part of the central administration of the Church.
Though restricted to the Piazza San Pietro, our tour should not altogether omit the fortified passageway on top of the wall that links the Vatican Palace with the Castel Sant' Angelo. This wall, many times restored, is said to have been constructed in 1277. At the time of the Sack of Rome in 1527 it provided the escape for Pope Clement VII (of the Medici family), who just made it on time to take refuge in the castle. While the Turkish armies were victorious in Eastern Europe, Emperor Charles V, the avowed champion of the faith and strong opponent of Lutheranism and the Turks, had his quarrels with the Pope as well, and he literally made Italy into a battlefield. As the term indicates, the Sack of Rome, perpetrated by the Emperor's troops, was a disastrous event. The churches were desecrated, church properties pillaged and destroyed, clerics were murdered, nuns violated, and the Swiss guards were wiped out.
The site of the nearby castle was originally the tomb of Emperor Hadrian (139 A.D.). later constructions on top of this tomb transformed it into a state-fortress and a prison, much like the Tower of London. The castle is well worth a visit for its museums inside, as also for the panoramic views from the outside.
Why is it called the castle of the angel? In the year 590, when Hadrian's mausoleum had already been transformed into a fortress, Rome suffered from the terrible Plague. Pope Gregory the Great ordered processions to implore divine assistance. When one such procession was ended and the Pope was about to enter St. Peter's Basilica, he had a vision of the archangel Michael standing on top of the fortress, sheathing his sword. At that moment the pestilence suddenly came to an end, and the Pope ordered a chapel built on the spot were the archangel had appeared. From then on, the fortress was called the Castel Sant' Angelo.
If, wandering out of the forest of the Bernini north colonnade, we take another look at the wall we cannot fail to notice a beautiful little fountain, overlooked by many except by thirsty Romans and those in need of a wash. Right near the Porta Angelica gate, just at the eastern sweep of the colonnade's arm, this very mediaeval-looking fountain was constructed only in 1927 by Professor Pietro Lombardi, who had won a contest aimed at the re-establishment of some peculiar regional fountains. This beautiful and very useful little fountain is called the Fountain of the Four Tiaras. The three lower Tiaras are connected with the keys of St. Peter, and are surmounted by a fourth tiara. From the handle of each of the keys a spout of water sprinkles into three melon-shaped marble basins.
|ę Copyright notice The contents of this site are for personal-educational use only. Neither text nor images may be reproduced in any form without the permission of the respective copyright holders. This independent website is not endorsed by or associated with the Vatican, the Fabbrica of St. Peter's, or any business organization|