There is scarcely an account of any Roman sojourn that does not contain
the impressions of a visit to St Peter's. Those who remained silent about
virtually everything else often found their voices inside the great basilica.
The sole record of Fyodor Dostoevsky's thoughts during his 1863 stay are
that the church 'sent a shiver down the spine'.
Old St Peter's. Recent excavations under the basilica have shown that
both the Old and New St Peter's were centered with great care on a particular
grave, although this involved very great technical difficulties. This
presumably the "Trophy" of St Peter mentioned c.200 by Gaius;
certainly it was believed to be the tomb of Peter by Emperor Constantine
(d. 337), under whom the first great basilica was begun.
Truly negative reactions are surprisingly rare, and even then frequently
tempered by some positive afterthought. Thus George Stillman Hillard,
who was among the most disapproving critics of Catholic iconography, found
that St Peter's 'is so vast and it contains so much', that it is 'among
buildings what Shakespeare is among poets: both are characterized by universality'.
As a mere promenade, St Peter's is unequaled. It is better than the Boulevards,
than Picadilly or Broadway, and if it were not the most beautiful place
in the world, it would be the most entertaining.
...even so this
I love St Peter's church. It grieves me to think that after a few days
I shall see it no more. It has a peculiar smell from the quantity of incense
burned in it. The music that is heard in it is always good and the eye
is always charmed. It is an ornament of the earth.
St Peter's is a resume of so much that is Roman, from Michelangelo's
Pieta to Bernini's Baldacchino and Cathedra Petri and Giotto's mosaic
of the Navicella. Its outsized dimensions and grandiose decoration are
overwhelming, making the experience of walking through the building a
dynamic one. The tombs of the popes provide a visual history of art and
St Peter's Basilica is the reason why Rome is still the center of the
civilized world. For religious, historical, and architectural reasons
it by itself justifies a journey to Rome, and its interior offers a palimpsest
of artistic styles at their best - e.g., Bernini's great tomb for Pope
Alexander VII, Michelangelo's Pieta, the Baldacchino, and the dome. Down
below, the pagan necropolis in the scavi and the tomb of Saint Peter should
not be missed.
We now turn to look at the interior of the basilica. At first, to be
frank, we are disappointed; we have heard so much about its stupendous
size that we expect this to strike us all at once. Only gradually does
it dawn upon us - as we watch people draw near to this or that monument,
strangely they appear to shrink; they are, of course, dwarfed by the scale
of everything in the building. This in its turn overwhelms us.
"I like to look at statues. . . and I like to look at pictures also--even
of monks looking up in sacred ecstasy and monks looking down in meditation,
and monks skirmishing for something to eat--and therefore I drop ill nature
to thank the papal government for so jealously guarding and so industriously
gathering up these things, and for permitting me, a stranger and not an
entirely friendly one, to roam at will and unmolested among them, charging
me nothing and only requiring that I shall behave myself simply as well
as I ought to behave in any other man's house. I thank the Holy Father
right heartily, and I wish him long life and plenty of happiness."