Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City/Rome

Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City
Lazio, Vatican
closed on: open daily
Museum Type:
Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, exterior 1

The Saint Peter’s Basilica (whose full name is The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican) is the largest and most important Roman Catholic church in the world. Open daily, the church is a monumental Renaissance and Baroque building that also contains a large number of notable artworks. The basilica is located in the Vatican, a city-state surrounded by the city of Rome in central Italy.

Above: a  view of the basilica at dusk from Saint Peter’s Square; photo Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0).

History and architecture
The building we see today is the outcome of a 1600-year-long process during which the Basilica was built, destroyed, rebuild, enlarged, and modified repeatedly.
The first design of the “modern” Saint Peter’s Basilica dates back to the 16th century when Pope Julius II decided to replace the Old Basilica – built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century BCE on the supposed burial site of Saint Peter and which was in disrepair since the 15th century- with a new, monumental building.

The design of the church was initially commissioned by the Pope to architect Donato Bramante; after his death, he was subsequently replaced by Raphael, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini in succession. The design of the basilica was modified various times from the early 16th century to 1626 when the church was eventually completed. Most of the church’s interior decoration and furnishing were designed by Bernini in the 17th century, though some marble decorations were completed only in the 20th century.

The world’s largest church still today, the Saint Peter’s Basilica is a colossal Latin-cross-shaped building, topped by an imposing dome designed by Michelangelo, no less, and by architect Giacomo Della Porta.
The basilica has a net floor area of 15,160 square meters/163,180 square feet, is 218-meter/720-foot long, and 133-meter/448-foot meters high; the church is so large that the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London would fit eight times inside its above-ground volume (about 1.3 million cubic meters). Overall, the building can accommodate over 20,000 people.

Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, exterior 3

The basilica from Via della Conciliazione in Rome; the church’s dome was designed by Michelangelo around 1550 and completed by architect Giacomo Della Porta in 1590; photo Anthony G. Reyes (CC BY-ND 2.0).

The Saint Peter’s Basilica is a compendium of Italian architecture from the late Renaissance to the Baroque period. Its unconventionally wide Latin-cross plan is the consequence of the different visions of the several artists who took turns as chief architects, some of whom favored a Greek-cross shape while others a Latin-Cross one.
The double-shell dome resembles, on steroids, that of the Florence Cathedral designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century, while the interiors designed by Bernini are eminently Baroque in style.
Among the church’s less convincing architectural elements there is the massive early-Baroque facade on Saint Peter’s Square, designed by Carlo Maderno at the beginning of the 17th century.

Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, facade on Saint Peter's Square

The Basilica’s massive Baroque facade on Saint Peter’s Square was designed by architect Carlo Maderno and completed in 1614; photo by Warren LeMay (Public Domain).

Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, longitudinal section

Longitudinal section of the Saint Peter’s Basilica. Note the double-shell structure of the dome, arguably inspired by the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence designed by Brunelleschi; image Internet Archive Book Images (Public Domain).

Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, facade

View of the church and the Egyptian obelisk from the east; photo Nicola (CC BY 2.0).

Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, interior view

The central nave; photo Alex DROP (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Saint Peter's Basilica, interior with Bernini's baldachin

An interior view of the basilica with the bronze baldachin by Bernini in the foreground and, over it, the dome designed by Michelangelo around 1550; photo Adam Lusch (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, dome interior

Close-up view of the Michelangelo dome from inside the church; the internal surface of the dome is decorated with mosaics designed by various artists in the early 17th century; photo Slices of Light (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The Vatican grottoes
As mentioned above, the “modern” church replaced an early Christian basilica; in actual fact, the new church was built over the pavement and the foundations of the old one. In the gap between the pavements of the ancient and the new buildings, there are a series of underground rooms and corridors, many of which are richly decorated, collectively known as Grotte Vaticane (known as Vatican grottoes in English), where the Popes are usually buried and where the tomb of Saint Peter is also located. In total, 91 Popes are buried in the grottoes.

Tomb of Saint Peter, Vatican Grottoes, Rome

The tomb of Saint Peter in the Vatican Grottoes, an ensemble of underground rooms located underneath the Basilica; photo by Kevin Gessner (CC BY 2.0).

Saint Peter’s Square
Though strictly not part of the Basilica, the famous horseshoe-shaped Piazza San Pietro ideally complements the church’s architecture. Designed by Bernini and completed in 1667, the square is encircled by a monumental colonnade, comprising 284 Doric-order columns made of travertine stone, topped by 140 statues of Catholic saints. A 25.3-meter/83-foot high ancient Egyptian obelisk stands in the center of the square.

Saint Peter's Square colonnades

A close-up view of the famous colonnades of Saint Peter’s Square, designed by architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the mid-17th century, topped by 140 statues of saints; photo Nathan Rupert (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Saint Peter's Square and Basilica, Vatican City

Saint Peter’s Square with the Basilica and the obelisk on the right; photo vgm8383 (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Artworks on display in the Saint Peter’s Basilica
The Saint Peter’s Basilica contains many masterpieces of art; among them, the most famous is arguably the Pietà marble sculpture made by Michelangelo between 1497 and 1499 and located in the church’s north aisle.
Other notable pieces of view include the iconic high altar bronze canopy and several Baroque sculptures by Bernini, the statue of Pope Pius VI and the Monument to Clement XIII by Antonio Canova, the bronze statue of Saint Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio; the Tomb of Pope Innocent VIII by Pollaiuolo; the west aisle also accommodates the marble lid of the sarcophagus of Emperor Hadrian (2nd century CE) transformed into a baptismal font.
Except for the Holy Trinity by Pietro da Cortona, there are no famous paintings in the church, because almost all of them were replaced by mosaic replicas, which were thought to be more durable, during the 18th century; one of the most beautiful mosaics in the church is the replica of the famous Transfiguration painting by Raphael on view in the nearby Vatican Museums.

The visit to the Saint Peter’s Basilica is free but booking a guided tour with a fixed time slot is highly recommended in order to avoid the lines at the entrance.

Pietà Michelangelo, Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome

The Pietà by Michelangelo on view in the Saint Peter’s Basilica; the Italian artist made this world-famous marble sculpture between 1497 e il 1499 when he was in his early 20s; photo Gary Campbell-Hall (CC BY 2.0).

Tomb of Pope Alexander VII by Bernini, Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome

The Tomb of Pope Alexander VIII by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1671-1678; photo by Rog01 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Statue of Saint Peter, Arnolfo di Cambio, Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome

An interior view of the church with the bronze statue of Saint Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio (13th century) on the right; photo by Binary Koala (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Lorenzo Bernini baldachin, Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome

Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the first half of the 17th century, the baldachin over the church’s main altar is a monumental Baroque-style bronze canopy supported by four helical columns 36 feet high; photo Erik Drost (CC BY 2.0).

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copyright Inexhibit 2022 - ISSN: 2283-5474