St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour
Text from the CD-ROM ©1999 Our Sunday Visitor
(all rights reserved)
The atrium is entered through five doors corresponding to those of the Basilica: the three larger trabeated ones, 14 meters high and 7.6 meters wide, each flanked by four columns, and two smaller intermediate arched doors surmounted by the plaques dedicated to Paul V, already mentioned. All the doors have elegant wrought iron gates.
The central gate bears the arms of Paul V, the ones immediately to the left and right bear the Barberini bees of Urban VIII, who had a furnace specially built to work the iron of the papal mines on Monte Leone. The gates on the outside are simpler and date from the era of Pius VI.
On the extreme outer edges of the facade are two magnificent arches. The one on the left is called the Arch of the Bells which is the only entry from the square to the Vatican City. From closer up, Buonvicini's "handing over of the Keys" over the central door, underneath the balcony from which the first deacon announces the proclamation of new Popes, can be better observed.
The atrium, corresponding to the old portico or vestibule of early Christian and Medieval Basilicas, measuring 71 meters in length, 13 in width and 20 in height can be considered Maderno's masterpiece. Built between 1608 and 1612, it is harmoniously balanced in its proportions and dynamically varied in the walls and the barrel vault.
Along the walls Ionic columns and pillars alternate, smooth on the outside, composite and tapered on the inside, surmounted by tympanums triangular in shape, except for the central two which are curved, decorated by delicate cherub heads, some of which were sculpted by the young Borromini while still a stonemason. The vault is richly decorated by superb stucco work in dark gold on a white background with panels illustrating the Acts of the Apostles and the arms of Paul V. Beside the lunettes under the vault are 32 statues of seated Popes who died as martyrs of the faith, again in stucco.
Above the main doorway is a bas-relief of Bernini's school, representing "Pasce oves meas." It is a decoration made by Ticinese craftsmen, among whom was Giovanni Greppi di Caslano, the most active stucco decorator present as has been discussed in detail in a recent study on the subject written by Laura Terza and entitled "La decorazione figurativa a stucco del Portico di San Pietro al tempo di Papa Paolo V" ("The figurative stucco decorations in the Portico of St. Peter's at the time of Pope Paul V"- in "San Pietro - Arte e Storia della Basilica Vaticana" -"St. Peter's - Art and History of the Vatican Basilica"- sponsored by the Banco Ambrosiano Veneto and published by Bolis, 1996, page 237-287).
The floor with precious marbles was created based on a design by Bernini, under Clement X, whose coat of arms with the six stars of the Altieri is placed at the left end. The center contains the coat of arms of John XXIII, who had it restored on the occasion of the inauguration of the second Vatican Council, on Oct. 11, 1962.
At the right end, in front of the Holy Door, there is the coat of arms of Leo XIII, in memory of his intervention in 1888. The walls between the pillars flanking the doors bear various inscriptions: the first one on the left refers to a donation by Gregory II (715-731) to maintain the lamps which burn around St. Peter's; the second on the left bears the epitaph dedicated by Charlemagne to Pope Adrian I (795); the bull "Antiquorum habet fida relatio," with which Bonifacius VIII proclaimed the first Jubilee in 1300, is sculpted on the memorial stone on the right of the median door; slightly below are the memorial stones which refer to the plenary indulgences granted to those entering the Basilica.
The grand hall of the Benediction is located above the portico. It is from this central balcony that the Pope blesses the crowd on special occasions while papal receptions and hearings are held inside.
The mosaic representing the "Navicella della Chiesa," commissioned by Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi to Giotto in 1298 for the Jubilee of 1300, is located above the main entrance of the portico. Originally rectangular, it was located in the four-sided portico of the Old Basilica, and only after four unfortunate transfers and various dismantling, recomposition and restoration activities, it was placed in its current location on the occasion of the Holy Year of 1675.
At the present time, except for a few details (the gilded edge of the ship, the sail blown by the wind, various sections of some apostles) it must -alas!- be considered as a reconstruction from the 17th century (the last radical restoration was by Marcello Provenzale) of the old masterpiece, which was also praised by Vasari.
The symbolic representation is inspired by the words of Jesus Christ, comparing the Church to a ship that is constantly battered by storms, by its numerous oppositions, but which will never sink because it can always rely on the help of its founder, depicted by the majestic figure standing on the stormy waves, with his right hand extended toward a kneeling St. Peter, while a very small figure of the cardinal who commissioned the work can be seen in the lower right corner.
The two ends of the portico open toward two vestibules uniting it with the corridors of the colonnade. The one on the right, which provides access to the Vatican Palace, is the site of the equestrian statue of Constantine, commissioned to Bernini in 1654 by Innocent X but only completed in 1670, under the papacy of Clement X, who had it placed at the feet of the Royal Staircase.
The emperor on a galloping horse is gazing skyward, astonished by the apparition of the cross. Behind the group is a large stucco drapery, imitating damask interwoven with gold, being fluttered by the wind, that adds to the effect of the impetuous movement of the rider.
In contrast, the equestrian statue of Charlemagne, made by Agostino Cornacchini, an 18th century artist who continued the Bernini style, whose enthusiastic and impetuous work is diminished by an academic and overly controlled realization, was placed at the end of the left vestibule in 1725.
Pope Paul V used the bronze door of the Old Basilica, commissioned to Antonio Averulino, also known as Filarete by Pope Eugene IV, accomplished already in 1455 by the Florentine workshop. It appears to be bound to the medieval world, with Byzantine influences, though chronologically a part of the Renaissance.
Among the four major compartments, Christ and the Virgin are represented in the upper part; St. Peter with Pope Eugene IV, kneeling before him, and St. Paul wielding a sword are represented in the center; the martyrdom of the two apostles with many details and interesting representations of ancient Rome, in the lower part. These compartments are separated by four horizontal bas-relief segments with the most important events of Eugene IV's papacy: episodes of the Council of Florence of 1438 for the decree of the union of the Greek and Roman churches, proclaimed by Eugene IV, and the arrival in Rome and the coronation of emperor Sigismund.
Vertical segments run around the entire door with garlands of flowers and leaves which are wound in spirals. In these decorations, called "girali (plant volutes)," Filarete inserts episodes taken from Aesop's fables, from the Metamorphosis of Ovid and from the Ecoglues of Horace. They are mainly decorative by nature.
On the lower back of the door, Filarete made a portrait of himself among his own disciples. Starting from the left, a knight on a donkey, and a figure on his right. In the central part, some of Filarete's assistants. Continuing to the right, Filarete himself holding a pair of compasses. At the right end of the scene, a knight on a dromedary. All of the figures bear their own name. The words "ANTONIUS ET DISCIPULI MEI" are shown on the two sides of Filarete. All the other figures bear their own name, from AGNOLUS to VARRUS.
Above the door a relief created by Bernini and his assistants represents the episode "Pasce Meas Oves," where Christ gives the Apostles the flock of the faithful.
At the right end of the atrium is the Holy Door. In 1949 it was furnished with two bronze wings with eight compartments on each side, produced by Vico Consorti, known as the "maestro degli usci" (master of the doors) because of his various works of commemorative doors.
The Door is purposefully based on a peaceful and expressive decorum and a symmetrical layout, since it was destined to remain closed, revealing the wall to be knocked down every Holy Year. Information about this solemn ceremony dates back to the Jubilee of 1500, under the papacy of Alexander VI, 200 years after the institution of this solemn pardon by Bonifacius VIII, who established that the ceremony would be repeated every 100 years. Afterwards, Clement VI reduced the period to every 50 years, Urban VI to 35 and Paul II to 25.
However, Jubilees were also celebrated outside these predetermined time periods. For example in 1933, with the Jubilee proclaimed by Pius XI to celebrate the anniversary of the death of the Redeemer and in 1983, with the one proclaimed by John Paul II, which is commemorated in one of the marble memorial stones located above the Door. The other stone refers to the last Jubilee celebrated by Paul VI.
In 1966 he also inaugurated the Door of Sacraments, completed by Venanzio Crocetti after 13 years of work, with eight panels, framed like paintings, each representing the celebration of every Sacrament. Complying with the balanced distribution of the equal-sized compartments, the artist created a plastic and expressive decorum and a simple narrative style, based on familiar, contemporary, everyday events.
The Door of Good and Evil, more animated and expressive, is located to the left of the Filarete Door. It was consecrated on Sept. 26, 1977 to celebrate Paul VI's eightieth birthday. Minguzzi confirms his vibrant sculptural expressionism, presented in some sections with violent brutality, accentuated by the plastic nature of the tormented modeling.
The last door on the left of the Atrium, the Door of Death by Giacomo Manzu' is perhaps the most authoritative contemporary work of St. Peter's Basilica. Consecrated on June 28, 1964, by Paul VI, the door had been commissioned by John XXIII, who died on June 3, 1963. Manzu', born in the same region as the Pope, dedicated the door to him.
In fact, Pope John appears in the work, like the scene in which he embraces bishop Rugambwe on the papal throne, with incisive physionomical features. It is also easy to recognize his friend and adviser Don De Luca, who died in 1962 and to whom Manzu' officially dedicated the door in the inscription with the Pope's consent.
The episodes of death, including violent events, express painful suffering, since they are represented after they have occurred, and thus extol through the catharsis of repentance. Manzu' is able to express his view of humanity quite spontaneously, focusing on its culminating moment, thanks to the simple freshness of the images and their sculptured transposition in delicate and light projection, with a constructive luminism that pervades the forms.
Six zoo-morphical symbols that allude to Death are inserted at the bottom; in the center, the two essential symbols of Christianity, a vine shoot and a bundle of wheat spikes, act as handles. The soft and suffuse plastic-luministic effect of the bas-reliefs is the result of "the quality of the bronze alloy, specially studied and developed by the artist together with his founder," as Orienti said.
When entering the Basilica, the feeling of admiration and astonishment created by the grandeur of the interior and its decorations go beyond all expectations, and such feelings are enhanced while moving slowly along the central aisle, inevitably attracted first by the Canopy rising under the extremely bright opening of the dome, and then by the Confession, which is the epicenter of this Temple.
In reality, the vastness of the general architecture and its special elements is not immediately perceived, because all the decorations added to the bare wall structures, and completed by Maderno at the end of the 16th century, were executed gradually with a great unifying sense of proportions. This balance was initially imposed by Bernini's supervision in the 17th century: the second great master who, after Michelangelo, left the most significant influence on St. Peter's, with a talent in which the Baroque spirit of the century is personified but always with a "classical" respect for the previous architectural space.
In effect, in the 17th century and quite satisfactorily also in the next century, the decorations made in the central aisle were successfully harmonized with the majestic grandeur of the space and its supporting elements designed by Michelangelo, with what is at least a three-fold increase in normal human proportions.
To recognize this it is only necessary to move toward the two holy water fonts (stoups) which are located at the end of the first arcade and do not capture much attention from the entrance; but, upon closer inspection, display all their grandeur with their more than two-meter tall chubby angels. They were created from 1722 to 1725, based on designs by Cornacchini, while the Sienna yellow basins were created by Giuseppe Lironi and the previously mentioned putti by Francesco Moderati.
When visiting the interior of the Basilica, it is important to make a distinction between two areas: the first consists of the central aisle and the octagon with the dome, where you can admire the imposing vastness by Michelangelo, the proportions of which blend quite well with the subsequent decorations, and the large sculptures such as the four huge central niches.
The second area consists of the side aisles with the annexed chapels and the space surrounding the octagon with the three apsidal transepts, in which the insertions, created from the end of the 16th century to the present, were unable to maintain a unified order of magnitude, and in many cases did not efficiently match the architecture. Therefore, in this second area, an almost museum type of tour is necessary, focusing on the individual works, while in the first area it will be interesting to obtain a general overview, getting closer, where possible, to the works and their details.
But in both cases it is always recommended, given the abundance and the variety of the artistic works preserved in the Basilica, to always look on both sides and even above, trying to penetrate the depth of the ceilings and especially the domes. The front part consists of the so-called architecture by Maderno, including the four spans of the central aisle and the two side aisles. The one on the right opens to the large chapel of the Sacrament while the two smaller ones open to the chapels of the Pieta and St. Sebastian.
The left aisle contains the large chapel of the Choir as well as the two minor ones of the Baptistry and the Presentation. This part is connected to the previous architecture of Michelangelo, consisting of the large central octagon, made up of the four pillars supporting the dome, under which we find the Confession and the Canopy. The three arms of the Greek cross with apsidal tribunes branch off from the octagon. The two side tribunes with Sts. Processo and Martiniano on the right and Sts. Simon and Judas on the left, with the central one forming the tribune of the See.
The so-called ambulatory of Michelangelo, the very wide corridor with vertices that open to the four square spaces, form the corner chapels surrounding the octagon: from right to left Gregorian, St. Michael, Maria of the Column and Clementine.
The total internal length is 186.86 meters. The length of the transept is 140.66 meters while the width of the three aisles is 58 meters. The major aisle, with a width of 25.84 meters and a height of 44.80 meters, is sustained by pillars that are 24.80 meters tall. The minor aisles, with a width of 10.18 meters, have arches that are 22.90 meters tall. The dome with an internal diameter of 42.56 meters and an external diameter of 58.90 meters, is supported by large arches with a height of 44.80 meters and width of 23.70 meters, while the height from the floor to the small vault of the lantern is 119.88 meters and 136.57 meters up to the cross. The internal measure of the length of the cornice is 593 meters, while the external one is 1778 meters.
As everyone knows, St. Peter's is the largest church in the world. This record is described in detail on the floor of the immense church, where from the entrance toward the apse, we find the internal measurements of the other large churches, St. Paul's of London (158.11 m) and Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (149.28 m), up to Westminster Cathedral and St. Sophia of Constantinople.
The extremely vast central aisle rests on massive pillars, which sustain very high Corinthian and grooved pilaster strips which are combined with and include a double row of niches. Grandiose arcades with a width of 13 meters and a height of 23 meters, which cover the vast passages to the side aisles, open between the pillars.
The larger Corinthian pillars, a total of 66 in the entire Basilica, together with bases, capitals, trabeation and cornice, were built with travertine marble. But starting in 1857, under Pius IX, who considered such material to be rather poor, the bases were replaced with 36 pillars of Carrara marble; an operation that was extended to the 20th century, with the replacement of entire pillars of the apse.
The top connection of the Basilica consists of a continuous trabeation with a protruding cornice that runs around the entire interior and below which there are gilded characters in the major aisle, in the octagon, and in the three arms of the Greek cross.
Median aisle: "EGO ROGAVI PRO TE, O PETRE UT NON DEFICIAT FIDES TUA, ET TU ALIQUANDO CONVERSUS, CONFIRMA FRATRES TUOS"
Right transept: "O PETRE, DIXISTI TU ES CHRISTUS FILIUS DEI VIVI, AIT JESUS: BEATUS ES SIMON BAR IONA QUIA CARO ET SANGUIS NON REVELAVIT TIBI"
Left transept: "DICIT TER TIBI PETRE IESUS DILIGIS ME? CUI TER O ELECTE RESPONDENS AIS: O DOMINE TU QUI OMNIA NOSTI TU SCIS QUIA DILIGO TE
Internal sides of the four pillars: "HINC UNA FIDES," "HINC SACERDOTII," "MUNDO REFULSIT," "UNITAS EXORITUR"
Above, in the center of the spacious coffered barrel vault, we find the coat of arms of Pius VI, the Pope who restored it in 1780 and who replaced the coat of arms of Paul V, who had originally built the structure.
Michelangelo had designed the interior of his temple with a Greek cross without any excessive decorations, and even with some completely bare walls, modeled only by the architectural elements. An imposing and unifying design in the manner of grandiose sculpted surfaces which, however, with the extension by Maderno, would have lost that unitary layout, with a symmetrical correspondence of projections and recesses, and would have been too cold and severe in its bare vastness.
It should also be recalled that with regard to the rich interior decoration, the various persons who commissioned the works were guided not only by the aesthetic intentions assigned to the individual artists, but also by practical religious purposes, such as the teaching and diffusion of Christianity, which was often inherent to the contents and the depiction of the various projects. Such intents were in effect carried out by the main decorative series, from the mosaics, in particular the domes and funereal monuments, to the sculptures of the Allegories of the Virtues and Founding Saints.
The variform decorative complex of the interior of St. Peter's began in the early 16th century, during the papacy of Gregory XIII, for the initial mosaic decorations, for which the Studio of the Mosaic was specifically established. The works began with the Gregorian chapel in 1576, continuing with the large central dome, commissioned from 1598-1599, and then the Clementine chapel for the Jubilee of 1600. The decisive decorative impetus, especially for what concerns the marble coverings of the pillars and sculptures inserted in the central aisle, was carried out by Bernini in the 17th century, and was almost completed in the 18th century, while closely matching the Bernini style.
From 1645 to 1649, under Pope Innocent X, variform Roman artists supervised the decoration of the internal surfaces of the pillars, executed by his direct collaborators including famous sculptures such as Bolgi, Ferrata, Fancelli, Raggi and Peroni, with two pairs of putti in white marble, supporting oval medallions with 40 portraits of the first Popes who were saints, and another pair in the center with keys, tiaras and books.
From 1647-1649, it was Bernini again who extended that decoration, along the central aisle in the pendentives of the arches, with stucco statues of the Allegories, which had already been executed in the Gregorian and Clementine chapel by Ambrogio Buonvicino and Camillo Mariani, with the figures of Faith, Charity, Justice and Fortitude.
This series, consisting of 28 large allegorical, full relief statues, was designed according to the Baroque iconography established by Cesare Ripa as an example of the teaching being imparted by the Church through art. Many funereal monuments were designed and created in the 17th century. There were also some absolute masterpieces always by Bernini but also by Algardi, which continued into the next century based mainly on the Bernini style, up to the exceptional era of Canova, to end then in the 19th century and in modern times, with results that were not worthy of the past.
Work was also being carried out on altar pieces, which were gradually transferred to the mosaic mainly in the 18th century and on domes built directly in such material which certainly offered a much more reliable means of preservation.
These two decorative series, the most important and representative of the Basilica, were located in the side aisles, in the ambulatory and in the transept, and unfortunately did not harmoniously match the architecture.
The middle decades of the 17th century, as we have already seen, were years marked by great decorative projects for St. Peter's, which rapidly changed the severe aspect of an unadorned church, in conformity with the principles of the Counter-reform, as Maderno had realized with strictly architectural objectives. The projects that had already been started were continued in the subsequent decades.
Finally, the last great sculptural cycle of the Basilica, that of the "Founding Saints," began in the 18th century. This cycle filled the niches between the pilaster strips with a total of 39 statues, since the fortieth was occupied by the Statue of St. Peter. In the 17th century these spaces were filled with allegorical statues made with ephemeral materials during special ceremonies, such as canonizations. This is how the major aisle acquired that final aspect that visitors can see today.
The decision to undertake this series was already established in 1668 by the Congregation of the Reverenda Fabbrica (Council of Maintenance of St. Peter), headed by the Prefect Cardinal Francesco Barberini. However, it was only in 1706 that the first statue of St. Dominic, executed by Pietro Legros, was placed in a niche on the right of the See tribune.
Already during this first arrangement, disputes arose in selecting the niche, so that a special decree was drafted in 1752 to govern such assignments according to specific rules, as accurately reported by the cardinal Virgilio Noč in his book "The Founding Saints of the Vatican Basilica," that was dedicated to this project. This is a noteworthy and prestigious work in terms of its meticulous and complete text, from artistic, religious and illustrative aspects, and in terms of the quality.
The insertion of the 39 statues - the last one of St. Luisa de Marillac, the Founder of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, executed by Antonio Berti, was inaugurated on April 21, 1954, - blends in terms of color and proportions with a good quality level for the 18th century that began changing in the next century and which deteriorated decidedly in our times. Naturally, the best works are located in the lower niches. Some of these are located in the major aisle: on the right St. Vincent De Paul by Bracci, St. Philip Neri by Maini, on the left St. Camillo de Lellis by Pacilli and St. Ignatius of Loyola by Rusconi.