Lonely Planet review
In this city of outstanding churches, none can hold a candle to St Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro), Italy’s largest, richest and most spectacular church. A monument to centuries of artistic genius, it contains some spectacular works of art, including three of Italy’s most celebrated masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pietà , his breathtaking dome, and Bernini’s baldachin (canopy) over the papal altar.
It's also one of Rome's busiest tourist attractions, drawing up to 20,000 people on a busy day. So expect queues and remember to dress appropriately – no shorts, miniskirts or bare shoulders.
The original basilica was commissioned by the emperor Constantine and built around 349 on the site where St Peter is said to have been buried between AD 64 and 67. But like many medieval churches, it eventually fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the mid-15th century that efforts were made to restore it, first by Pope Nicholas V and then, rather more successfully, by Julius II.
In 1506 Bramante came up with a design for a basilica based on a Greek-cross plan, with four equal arms and a huge central dome. But on Bramante’s death in 1514, construction work ground to a halt as architects, including Raphael and Antonio da Sangallo, tried to modify his original plans. Little progress was made and it wasn’t until Michelangelo took over in 1547 at the age of 72 that the situation changed. Michelangelo simplified Bramante’s plans and drew up designs for what was to become his greatest architectural achievement, the dome. He never lived to see it built, though, and it was left to Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana to finish it in 1590.
With the dome in place, Carlo Maderno inherited the project in 1605. He designed the monumental facade and lengthened the nave towards the piazza.
Free English-language tours of the basilica are run from the Vatican tourist office, the Centro Servizi Pellegrini e Turisti, at 9.45am on Tuesday and Thursday and at 2.15pm every afternoon between Monday and Friday.
Built between 1608 and 1612, Carlo Maderno’s immense facade is 48m high and 118.6m wide. Eight 27m-high columns support the upper attic on which 13 statues stand representing Christ the Redeemer, St John the Baptist and the 11 apostles. The central balcony is known as the Loggia della Benedizione , and it’s from here that the pope delivers his Urbi et Orbi blessing at Christmas and Easter.
The cavernous 187m-long interior covers more than 15,000 sq metres and contains many spectacular works of art, including Michelangelo's hauntingly beautiful Pietà at the head of the right nave. Sculpted when he was only 25, it is the only work he ever signed – his signature is etched into the sash across the Madonna's breast.
Nearby, the red disc just inside the main door marks the spot where Charlemagne and later Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the pope.
Dominating the centre of the basilica is Bernini's 29m-high baldachin . Supported by four spiral columns and made with bronze taken from the Pantheon, it stands over the high altar, which itself sits on the site of St Peter's grave. The pope is the only priest permitted to serve at the high altar.
Above, Michelangelo's dome soars to a height of 119m. Based on Brunelleschi's design for the Duomo in Florence, the towering cupola is supported by four solid stone piers, named after the saints whose statues adorn their Bernini-designed niches – Longinus, Helena, Veronica and Andrew.
At the base of the Pier of St Longinus, to the right as you face the high altar, is a bronze statue of St Peter , believed to be a 13th-century work by Arnolfo di Cambio. It's a much-loved piece and its right foot has been worn down by centuries of pilgrims' kisses and caresses.
To climb the dome , the entrance is to the right of the basilica. A small lift takes you halfway up, but it's still a long climb to the top (320 steps). Press on, however, and you're rewarded with stunning views. It's well worth the effort, but bear in mind that it’s a long and tiring climb and not recommended for those who suffer from claustrophobia or vertigo.
Museo Storico Artistico
Accessed from the left nave, the Museo Storico Artistico sparkles with sacred relics and priceless artefacts, including a tabernacle by Donatello and the 6th-century Crux Vaticana , a jewel-studded cross that was a gift of the emperor Justinian II.
Extending beneath the basilica, the Vatican Grottoes were created as a burial place for popes. You’ll see the tombs and sarcophagi of many popes, as well as several huge columns from the original 4th-century basilica.
Tomb of St Peter
Excavations beneath the basilica have uncovered part of the original church and what the Vatican believes is the Tomb of St Peter . In 1942 the bones of an elderly, strongly built man were found in a box hidden behind a wall covered by pilgrims' graffiti. After more than 30 years of forensic examination, in 1976 Pope Paul VI declared the bones to be those of St Peter.
The excavations can only be visited on a 90-minute guided tour. To book a spot email the Ufficio Scavi(email@example.com).