St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour
Text from the CD-ROM ©1999 Our Sunday Visitor
(all rights reserved)

The Square

Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2







The Dome
The Square
The Obelisk
The Fountains
Bernini's Project
Constantine's Church
St. Peter's Grave
The Old Basilica
Holy Roman Emperors
The Two Churches
Julius II
Michelangelo's Design
Building the Basilica
Toward Completion
The Bell Towers
The Atrium
Filarete Door
Holy Door
Entering the Basilica
Interior Decoration
Founding Saints

Dome Decoration


The Crossing Statues
The Loggias

Statue of St. Peter
Pieta Chapel
Right Aisle
Blessed Sacrament Chapel
Monument to Gregory XIII
Gregorian Chapel
Right Transept
Michelangelo Ambulatory
Main Tribune
Monument to Urban VIII
Left Ambulatory
Monument to Alexander VII
Left Transept
Clementine Chapel
Choir Chapel
Innocent VIII Monument
Presentation Chapel
Stuart Monument
Baptistery Chapel


The Two Churches

The two churches, the central body designed by Bramante and Michelangelo and the longitudinal arm of the old Basilica with its nave and aisles, had remained side by side even after completion of the dome, separated by the enormous wall erected by Sangallo, by order of Pope Paul III in 1538, where the present 11th intercolumniation is.

However, from Nicholas V's decisive resolution until the actual completion of the façade, a little over 150 years were to pass. It was a long time but at the same time very short if we consider the huge amount of work carried out and the planning and design difficulties which accompanied it.

In effect, it took only a century, given that the work was abandoned for about 50 years after Nicholas V's death in 1455. He had entrusted the job of constructing a new Basilica to the architect Bernardo Rossellino, who produced a traditional design for a Latin cross church, with a portico at the front, terminating with a semi-circular apse and with a large dome rising at the center. The actual work carried out, however, was limited to the demolition of some parts of the Basilica and the beginning of construction of the Tribune.

In 1470 Paul II asked Giuliano da Sangallo to carry on the work which, however, proceeded very slowly for only a few years.

Julius II

Only with the election of Julius II della Rovere in 1503 was the great enterprise begun again. The strong-willed new Pope had grandiose ideas in mind, stimulated by his love of the arts but also profoundly motivated by a supreme conception of the Pope's authority, even temporal, equal if not superior to that of the Emperor.

Additionally, he was anxious to provide a prestigious place for his great mausoleum. Michelangelo showed him the most suitable place and presented a model to him. "The Pope asked what cost would this be, to which Michelangelo replied 100,000 scudi: let them, said Julius, be 200,000, and sending Sangallo and Bramante architects to see the place, in such doings to the Pope came the wish to build all the church anew."

The chosen architect was Bramante who, born in Urbino had lived in Lombardy, and arriving in Rome during the papacy of Alexander VI had built the Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio and the Cloister of Santa Maria della Pace, but he had also spent most of his time studying ancient Roman monuments. What is certain is that his design for the new Basilica was inspired by Constantine's Basilica and the Pantheon, together with San Vitale in Ravenna and San Lorenzo in Milan. Reproduced on a medal of Julius II, this design was interrupted by the premature death of the artist in 1514.

Up to then, Bramante had begun only a drastic demolition plan and the raising of the gigantic piers and the four arches which were to support the dome, as well as the initial part of the southern arm of the cross and one of the minor cupolas.

Michelangelo's Design

The design of the Basilica called for a large square building surmounted by a dome which, supported by grandiose piers, was to soar up as if suspended in space; inside the Basilica, there were to be four arms of a Greek cross leading off the dome itself and terminating in round apses inside and with straight lines outside.

It was a conception which was fortunately revived and respected by Michelangelo, after many ups and downs and alternative proposals, and which would have been revolutionary even though it was based on traditional lines.

In fact, when after 40 years, Michelangelo, by then 72 years old but still brilliantly alive and with an imperious character, took over as Chief Architect of the Basilica in 1546 (the official nomination was conferred to him on Jan. 1 with full "immutandi," "reformandi," "ampliandi" "et restringendi" authority), he repudiated the work of his predecessor Antonio da Sangallo, having what had been built by him demolished, and clearly once again took up Bramante's design, for which he had already some time earlier expressed the highest respect.

On the work begun by Bramante, Vasari wrote: "In that part which is finished in itself can be seen to run the cornice which winds around inside in a gracious manner, that the design of it can by no other hand be removed and lessened. It can be seen in his capitals which have olive leaves within and all the Doric work without, strangely very beautiful, how much awesomeness there was in the soul of Bramante."

In 1555, Michelangelo wrote to Ammannati: "And it cannot be denied that Bramante was capable as an architect, as much as any other that there has been from ancient times until now. He laid the first stone of St. Peter's, not without confusion, but clear and plain and luminous, and isolated around so that it could damage no thing in the palace; and beautiful things were kept as is still manifest; so whoever strayed from the said order of Bramante, as Sangallo did, has strayed from the truth."

Building the Basilica

Before the ideas of the two great architects could be joined positively in the continuation of the construction of the new Basilica, many years passed, marked by new misleading projects and painful historical events.

Bramante himself, just before dying, had indicated Raffaello Sanzio as his successor and most faithful executor of his artistic ideas and Raphael drew a longitudinal plan on a Latin cross with apses protruding from the perimeter, but this was never taken into any practical consideration also because of the high cost of the project.

In effect, already before Bramante's death, by then no longer working because of age and ill health, Leo X had already appointed to work alongside him Giuliano da Sangallo, who, however, was already 70 years old, assigning as assistants to him Fra Giocondo da Verona and Raphael.

These two abandoned Bramante's central idea, transforming the Greek cross to a Latin one, and elaborated a plan, once again longitudinal, as Raffaello and Sangallo wanted, but which called for two tall bell towers, one at each side of the facade.

This was another design which was destined to remain only on paper, since within the short space of six years, all the components of the so-called Triumvirate died.

Leo X then nominated Antonio da Sangallo, nephew of Giuliano, who since 1505 had been Bramante's assistant, as Director of Construction, appointing as his assistant Baldassare Peruzzi, another pupil of the Lombard architect, to whom another design is due which returned to Bramante's central idea of a Greek cross.

This design was considered the best by Vasari, but was not put into practical effect because of the events of the Sack of Rome in 1527 which caused the total suspension of all construction work (the Fabbrica).

However, during the papacy of Leo X, who died in 1521, the only practical work undertaken was the reinforcement of Bramante's four piers, considered insufficient to support the weight of the dome, as well as the consolidation of the foundations, which were also inadequate. This work accounted for almost all of the annual contribution established by the Pope at 6,000 scudi, equivalent to 3 million liras.

Construction was continued under Paul III Farnese, elected in 1534. This Pope was the initiator of the Roman Catholic Reform with the Council of Trent, and the restorer of the papal finances. He entrusted the work to Antonio da Sangallo who, not content just to design the plans, commissioned from him in 1538, also had a large wooden model built, which is still in existence. It measures 11 meters in length and eight meters in height and cost 5,184 golden scudi.

Sangallo's project was disharmonious and complicated, still inspired by Gothic art and very different from Bramante's central magnificence, of which only the Greek cross remained; this was prolonged toward the front with a large portico, flanked by two bell towers. At the end of the portico there was a façade enclosing the Loggia of the Blessings. The architect, however, did not manage to see his project even on the way to actuation.

The only work completed by him in St. Peter's was a further consolidation of Bramante's piers and the raising of the pavement of the new Basilica by 3.20 meters to give greater illumination to the complex which was too high and narrow; in this way the intermediate spaces between the old paving and the new were created, and these became known as the "grottoes" although it would be more correct to call them "crypts."

Sangallo died in 1546 and Paul III named as his successor Michelangelo, who returned to Bramante's project, but with a more grandiose and simplified concept. Vasari wrote that the artist "reduced St. Peter's to a minor shape but with greater magnificence, aimed to make of the church almost a vigorous structure supporting the dome, which is no longer modeled on the Pantheon, but rather on the one in the Florentine Santa Maria del Fiore."

Buonarroti molded the exterior of the Basilica almost as though it were a sculpture with its three arms, made dynamic by the twin Corinthian pillars, between which elegant cups, niches and windows open. The construction thus appears extremely vibrant but joined by the protruding cornice running all around it and on which rests an attic upon which the pilaster strips are alternated by windows already in Baroque style.

On this pedestal - which can be admired only by entering the Vatican and viewing the Basilica from the opposite side from the façade - rises the dome, which as Turcio ably underlined, "rather than resting upon it, appears to be suspended above the tambour, reinforced by 12 buttresses, to which the same number of twin columns give the appearance of an aerial portico." The Basilica acquires an airy lightness which, even with the evident powerfulness of its structure, accentuates the vertical soaring of the dome.

Of this, Michelangelo had a very detailed wooden model constructed, which was to serve as a guide for the future executors of the work. Since he was in fact by then very old, the artist feared that after his death the project might be altered, but it was the model itself, still in existence, which was perhaps to undergo modifications; when the artist died in 1564, the dome in fact had reached only the tambour.

The then Pope Pius IV entrusted the commission to Jacopo Barozzi, known as Vignola who, nevertheless, completed only two minor cupolas, useful only as external accompaniment to the larger dome.

The task and the honor of raising Michelangelo's dome fell to the Lombard architect, Giacomo della Porta who, after finishing, under the papacy of Gregory XIII, the Gregorian Chapel already begun by Michelangelo, set about the greater enterprise with the help of Domenico Fontana, commissioned by Sixtus V, who it was said had the heart of a Roman Emperor (perhaps because he was famous for having had various obelisks erected in Rome).

He kept in substance to the model left by Michelangelo, but did not follow it exactly, since he made the dome -originally designed as rounded- larger and higher, and at the same time more pointed to accentuate the vertical nature of the entire construction. This was begun on July 15, 1588, and completed in May of 1590, in only 22 months (it was feared that it would take 10 years), due to the incessant toil of 800 workers who even labored at night by the light of torches.

Toward Completion

Elected in 1605, Pope Paul V Borghese decided to tackle the final demolition of the old church and the completion of the new one. Very few of its monuments are conserved in the Vatican crypts and even less of them are undamaged. The remainder were dispersed or totally destroyed. As a record of the appearance of the glorious early Christian Basilica there remains the careful drawings of the archivist of St. Peter's, Giacomo Grimaldi.

After the demolition of the old Basilica, reconstruction followed. The Greek cross floor plan was abandoned for practical reasons, since more space was required to hold the various ceremonies: from canonizations to coronations, from Jubilee events to those connected with councils. Additionally, the front arm of the original project would not have been sufficient to house the various lateral chapels later built in about 10 years and, above all, as Turcio emphasized, it would not have included "the surface of the old Basilica, consecrated by Pope Silvester, in the new plan." Therefore, by decision of the Congregation of the Cardinals, the artistic requirements were subordinated to practical liturgical-ecclesiastical needs.

A competition was held to elect the new director of works, in which the most distinguished architects of the time took part, from Giovanni Fontana and Giovanni Rainaldi to Domenico Fontana and Ludovico Cigoli. The winner was Carlo Maderno da Bissone (Lugano). Giuseppe Bianco da Narni constructed a wooden model of the winning project at huge cost - the result, despite very severe criticism from Maderno, culminating in that of Milizia who called him "the greatest offender against architecture," can on the contrary be considered satisfactory although certainly not optimal given the inherent pre-existent problems which certainly could not be blamed on him.

The Bell Towers

The lessening of the effect of the dome as seen from the square was inevitable, but was nevertheless attenuated as far as possible by Maderno, who limited the height of the façade, even though, in doing so, he was unable to avoid rendering it somewhat disharmonious due to its excessive width.

In effect, he had intended that two bell towers should be erected at its sides and these - as can be seen from the reconstruction of Gurlitt which, however, refers to Bernini's revival of Maderno's original idea - would have raised the facade making it lighter, while at the same time providing a frame for the dome behind it.

Unfortunately, due to subsidence of the ground beneath, the construction of the two towers was abandoned right from the start. Nor did Bernini have greater luck when, 30 years later, he attempted the building on the south side of one of his two bell towers, since it had to be demolished immediately, moreover at the expense of Bernini himself, due to damage which appeared on the walls beneath.

Neither architect took the instability of the ground into due consideration, and laid the foundations poorly so that only the bases have remained, formed by the arches at the sides of the façade, and these further contribute to its excessive width, since they appear to be part of the façade itself rather than being detached from it as they were intended. Nor was this defect corrected by the subsequent placing, under Pius VI, of two clocks of modest height, designed by Giuseppe Valadier.

The six bells of the Basilica were placed in the room below the clock on the left. The largest of the bells, measuring 7.5 meters in circumference and weighing about 11 tons, was cast in 1786 by Luigi Valadier, father of Giuseppe. From 1931, they are operated electrically, thus permitting even the largest bell to be tolled from a distance.


Maderno had already brilliantly shown his undoubted artistic value with the façade of the Church of Santa Susanna; but in St. Peter's he found himself tied to Michelangelo's earlier prospects of the flanks, the height of which had to be linked to the facade.

He was not even able to top the lower order of it with an upper one of proportionate height, since this would have excessively obscured the dome. He therefore only added an attic reproducing the 16th century one running all around the rest of the Basilica, as moreover Michelangelo himself had intended to do. While this addition is elsewhere both powerful and dynamic, when viewed from the western side, due to the lengthening of the anterior nave and the need for a longer portico, it confers an undoubted disharmony to the façade in its height-length ratio and a subsequent lengthening of it.

The failure to build the two lateral towers also contributed to this defect. Maderno tried to remedy these inherent defects, by dividing the lower order into various vertical zones, using columns in place of the pilasters, thus achieving a kind of blind portico which has harmonious proportions and is broken up by niches, door and windows decorated with swags and plaques, motifs taken from the arms of Paul V, placed in the intercolumniations.

The arms of the Borghese family can be seen on the tympanum of the triangular pediment, placed above the four central columns. In this solution which, as already mentioned, was intended to be made lighter and raised by the two lateral towers, instead of being made heavier and lengthened as it was, the insignificant size of the central pediment under which the Loggia of the Blessings opens, is truly out of place.

The foundations of the façade were begun on Nov. 5, 1607; on Feb. 10 the first stone, blessed by the Pope, was laid and on July 21, 1612, the first part of the huge work (45.44 meters high and 114.69 meters wide) was finished.

In the following two years it was completed with the cornice, the attic and the balustrade surmounted by statues of Christ, St. John the Baptist and the 11 apostles and the posing of the bas-relief representing the "handing over of the Keys" by the Milanese artist, Ambrogio Buonvicino, over the central door. Thus the strong-willed Roman Pope, Paul V, immortalized by his arms on the pediment of the Basilica, after more than a century of work, was able to proudly hand over the temple of Christ to his fellow citizens, finished both in its interior and exterior structures.

In fact, due to the enterprise and the energy of this Pope, certainly the most active of all his predecessors, even the interior appearance was radically changed. Its material executor was the praiseworthy Maderno, under whose orders were at least 700 workers and assistants.

Among these was also his nephew, Francesco Castelli known as Borromini, a young stonemason from Bissone, who copied his uncle's drawings, putting them into scale. For a short time, he carried on this work for Bernini, who had taken over as chief architect of St. Peter's on the death of Maderno in 1629, during the papacy of Gregory XV.

There is little in St. Peter's to witness the work of Borromini, that very capable antagonist of Bernini who is the author of several architectural masterpieces in Rome, among which is the elegant gate to the Sacrament Chapel.

In 1606, the demolition of the Old Basilica had begun, from the roof downwards. Chapels, altars, oratories, among these John VII's famous one, disappeared along with precious mosaics from the eighth century, the portico with its ancient frescoes, the atrium with the tombs of Popes and emperors, the Cantharus with the pine cone, now in the Vatican, the loggia of the blessings and the bell tower.

Despite the orders of the Pope to save as much as possible, there are few monuments held in the Vatican crypts and few of these are undamaged. As already mentioned, the remainder were either lost or totally destroyed. With incessant alacrity, almost immediately, and often even simultaneously, re-construction followed the destruction.

First the Holy Sacrament and Choir Chapels, larger than the others, were completed. Then it was the turn of the Presentation and St. Sebastian Chapels, and lastly those of the Baptistry and the Crucifix, beside the entrance to the church. In the year of 1614 alone, the immense, three meter-thick vault, was constructed into which large windows were inserted (the side aisles, in reality, are insufficiently illuminated by elliptical cupolas entirely decorated in mosaic).

In 1612, the same year as the inauguration of the main lower order and general wall structure of the façade, the portico with the upper hall which opens onto the loggia of the blessings was finished. In 1615, the Confession was built to Maderno's harmonious and polished design, and in that same year the dividing wall, which Paul III had commissioned, was demolished.


Thus, on Palm Sunday, the Basilica was presented for the first time in an entirely renewed version, still awaiting future embellishments, which were to be carried out to a great extent by Bernini. It was a vision which can be at least partially reproduced by blocking out the ornaments, as far as is possible, to give an idea of the austerity and the immensity that the place must have had, and of the inherent problems for the subsequent ornamental work, carried out principally in the 1600s, but which have continued up to the present day.

Finally, thanks to the energy of Paul V, in 1617 the steps were rebuilt and in 1619 the doors were hung, adapting the Filarete Door, which had previously been part of the Old Basilica, as the main central door, thus providing one of the main external symbols of the continuity between the old and the new temple of Christ.

After briefly pausing to tell of the vicissitudes of the first St. Peter's Basilica and the difficult construction of the new one, and after admiring the ingenious layout of the space before the facade, with its merits and defects, it is now time to enter inside and begin a long tour of a building which, besides being the greatest temple in Christendom, must also be considered as a fascinating museum of Roman art in the 1600s and 1700s, in particular sculpture and ornamentation.

The church was once entered by mounting the monumental steps which Paul V had built and Bernini renovated under Alexander VII, with three ramps of 22 steps each and in the middle a large convex pavilion in granite and travertine, to be used by carriages and horses. Only recently, for logistic reasons, entrance is from the sides of the facade.

In front of the steps are the two colossal statues of St. Peter, the work of Giuseppe De Fabris da Nove, and St. Paul, by the Bolognese artist Adamo Tadolini, commissioned by Gregory XVI for St. Paul outside the Walls Basilica, but transferred here by Pius IX in 1847. These two statues replaced the earlier ones, formally erroneously attributed to Mino da Fiesole.

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