When in 1753 Giuseppe Vasi published this etching he had already shown in two separate plates the dome of the basilica (1747) and the
square (1752); in this view he showed the square, the basilica and the complex of buildings known as the Vatican palaces including far away Palazzo del Belvedere. As a matter of fact the focus of this plate is on the square, perhaps because the previous one showed only half of it. In 1765 he depicted in detail the basilica in a Grand View of the Vatican City.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Palazzo Apostolico and Palazzo del Belvedere; 2) Amphitheatre. The map shows also: 3) S. Pietro; 4) Cappella Sistina; and in the enlarged map of the area near the red asterisk: 5) Porta S. Pellegrino; 6) SS. Martino e Sebastiano degli Svizzeri. 2) is shown in another page.
The view in June 2009
When Vasi published his etching the great basilica was still regarded as being under construction because the two bell towers at the sides of the façade were not yet completed.
(left) Pinacoteca Vaticana: inscription celebrating the laying down of the first stone of the bell tower in 1638; (right) detail of an engraving by Israel Sylvestre (ca 1643) showing the bell tower before it was demolished
A project by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was approved by Pope Urban VIII in 1637 and soon the architect started the erection of the southern bell tower. Work was halted in 1641 because the foundation did not support the weight of the tower (Francesco Borromini, a rival architect, charged Bernini with lack of technical expertise in the design and execution of the project). In 1646 the upper part of the bell tower was pulled down (Bernini had to pay the cost).
Eventually the idea of completing the bell towers was abandoned. In 1790 Giuseppe Valadier marked with two large clocks the bases of the bell towers and he enlarged their windows to show the bells. The clocks indicated different hours: the Italian one and the European one (Tempo Ultramontano - beyond the Alps). They constitute the main difference between the plate by Vasi and today's view.
"The 847 Fire of Borgo" (in part an allegory of the fire which destroyed Troy), a fresco by Raphael in Palazzo Apostolico. It shows in the central section the façade of S. Pietro Vecchio and a Renaissance loggia from which Pope Leo IV blesses the terrified inhabitants of Borgo. The scene on the left portrays Aeneas fleeing Troy with his father and his son, a subject which inspired a famous statue by Bernini
Vasi refers to the basilica as "S. Pietro", but XVIIth century writers (e.g. Giovanni Baglione - The Lives of Painters, Sculptors, Architects and Engravers - 1642) referred to it as "S. Pietro Nuovo" to indicate that it had replaced the old basilica which was built in the IVth century.
The façade of S. Pietro Vecchio was decorated with golden mosaics and for more than a century it acted as a screen which hid the construction of the new basilica; this is clearly shown in a small engraving of a 1588 Guide to Rome. The choir and the apse of the old basilica were sheltered by a tegurium (a roof supported by columns) designed by Donato Bramante in 1514; the last mass in S. Pietro Vecchio was celebrated on November 15, 1609.
The first stone of the new basilica was laid down by Pope Julius II in 1506; several architects such as Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Michelangelo were involved in the design of S. Pietro Nuovo; their projects had some differences, but they all provided for a gigantic dome, the size of which was expected to be larger than that of S. Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence. In 1590 Giacomo della Porta succeeded in completing the dome and the event was celebrated in a fresco, which shows the overall appearance of the basilica according to the initial projects which were based on a Greek cross layout.
S. Pietro Nuovo seen from Janiculum
At the beginning of the XVIIth century the initial design of S. Pietro Nuovo was regarded as not being in line with the guidelines for the layout of churches which were developed in 1577 by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in Instructionum Fabricae et Supellectilis ecclesiasticae. Pope Paul V decided to prolong the eastern arm of the new basilica so that it covered all the area of the old one; in 1607 a project by Carlo Maderno won a contest and the eastern arm was completed by 1612, thus giving the basilica the desired Latin cross layout.
Façade by Carlo Maderno
The façade is not just the end wall of the eastern arm, but a building in itself; its original width is that of the inscription celebrating the event; its central balcony was meant for papal blessings; today this occurs on special occasions such as the first blessing of a newly-elected pope (you may wish to see some images of the façade when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 - it opens in another window).
Some of the works of art which embellished S. Pietro Vecchio were retained, e.g. the bronze door by Antonio Averlino known as il Filarete, but many others did not suit the taste of the time and they were donated to members of the papal court or to other churches. You may wish to see Cappella Simoncelli at Boville, the sacristy of S. Maria in Cosmedin or a niche at S. Balbina. Most of the papal funerary monuments were moved to the Vatican Grottoes or to other locations (you may wish to see a directory where they are listed chronologically).
Mosaics on display at a temporary exhibition at S. Maria Antiqua
The construction of the new basilica entailed the demolition of a number of ancillary facilities which surrounded the old one. The mosaics shown above embellished an oratory built by Pope John VII in 706 which was demolished in 1609. Giacomo Grimaldi, the basilica notary at the time, wrote an illustrated description of the oratory. We owe him detailed information about the old basilica, its inscriptions and works of art. Other fragments of the oratory decoration are housed in museums of Florence and Moscow.
Ceiling of the new portico
The access to the basilica is preceded by a large portico decorated with the eagles and dragons of Pope Paul V. The inscription containing the epitaph dedicated by Emperor Charlemagne to Pope Hadrian I was kept in the new portico. Statues of Emperor Constantine by Bernini and of Emperor Charlemagne by Agostino Cornacchini were placed at the far ends of the portico.
There are days when the vast nave looks mysteriously vaster than on others and the gorgeous baldachino a longer journey beyond the far-spreading tessellated plain of the pavement, and when the light has yet a quality which lets things loom their largest, while the scattered figures - I mean the human, for there are plenty of others - mark happily the scale of items and parts. Then you have only to stroll and stroll and gaze and gaze; to watch the glorious altar-canopy lift its bronze architecture, its colossal embroidered contortions, like a temple within a temple, and feel yourself, at the bottom of the abysmal shaft of the dome, dwindle to a crawling dot.
You may wish to read more of Henry James' account of his visit to S. Pietro in 1873.
The apse seen from the drum
There is a passage all round, and
from above you can take a view of the whole church, and of
its several parts. As we stood on the cornices of the tympanum, we saw beneath us the Pope (Pius VI) passing to his mid-day
devotions. Nothing, therefore, was wanting to make our
view of St. Peter's perfect.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - November 22, 1786 - translation by Charles Nisbeth
The decoration of the new basilica was mainly based on mosaics (rather than frescoes) in memory of the old one where this kind of decoration prevailed; a gigantic mosaic inscription quotes a passage from Matthew (16:18): Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam (et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam). Et tibi dabo claves Regni caelorum. King James Bible: Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church (and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it). And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. For the Roman Catholic Church this sentence affirms its being the only "true" church. You may wish to see some other mosaics.
Interior of the dome
The decoration of the dome was designed to be the visual representation of Te Deum, a Christian hymn of praise; the Father is portrayed inside the lantern while heads of Seraphim and Cherubim are depicted in circles; the mosaics show standing angels, three of whom bear symbols of the Passion; the sixteen mosaics at the lower end of the dome portray Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Paul and the Twelve Apostles; the mosaics were executed on the basis of cartoons by Cavalier d'Arpino, who was regarded as the greatest painter of that period; the colour effect based on gold and blue was admired, but the structure of the decoration was criticized for being too repetitive and in the following years the churches of Rome were decorated with very different ceilings.
Works by Bernini: (left) The Baldachin and the Octagon; (right) The Chair of St. Peter
Away down toward the far end of the church (I thought it was really clear at the far end, but discovered afterward that it was in the center, under the dome) stood the thing they call the baldachino - a great bronze pyramidal framework like that which upholds a mosquito bar. It only looked like a considerably magnified bedstead - nothing more. Yet I knew it was a good deal more than half as high as Niagara Falls.
You may wish to read more of Mark Twain's account of his visit to S. Pietro in 1867.
Canova was not so Greek or even so classic as one used to think him, but one hardly has a moment of repose in St. Peter's till one comes to a monument by him and rests in its quiet. It is tame, it is even weak, if you like; but compared with the frantic agglomeration of gilt clouds and sunbursts, and marble and bronze figures in the high-altar, it is heavenly serene and lovely.
You may wish to read more of William Dean Howells' account of his visit to S. Pietro in 1908.
In other pages of this website you can see the coats of arms of the Baldachin, the four gigantic statues of the Octagon and two funerary monuments by Bernini.
(left) Bronze statue of St. Peter attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio (late XIIIth century). It was located in a side chapel of S. Pietro Vecchio; (right) Pietà by Michelangelo (1499). It was commissioned by a French cardinal for the chapel of the Kings of France inside S. Pietro Vecchio
There is a black statue of St. Peter, to be sure, under a red canopy; which is larger than life, and which is constantly having its great toe kissed by good Catholics. You cannot help seeing that: it is so very prominent and popular.
You may wish to read more of Charles Dickens' account of his visit to S. Pietro in 1845 or to see a 1905 painting by Alberto Pisa showing the popular devotion to the statue.
The sculptures, with the sole exception of Michael Angelo's ineffable "Pietà", which lurks obscurely in a side-chapel - this indeed to my sense the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced - are either bad or indifferent. H. James
You may wish to see some funerary monuments to kings and queens.
Then we climbed up on to the roof, where one finds a miniature copy of a well-built town with houses, shops, fountains, churches (at least they looked like churches from the outside) and a large temple - everything in the open air with beautiful walks between. We went into the Cupola and looked out at the Apennines, Mount Soracte, the volcanic hills beyond Tivoli, Frascati, Castel Gandolfo, the plain and the sea beyond it. Below us lay the city of Rome in all its length and breadth with its hill-perched palaces, domes, etc.
J. W. Goethe - translation by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer - Collins
Main dome which is shown also in the image used as background for this page
The great feast of St. Peter and St. Paul has come at last. Yesterday we saw the illuminated dome and the fireworks of Castel Sant'Angelo. The illuminations are spectacular, like a scene from fairyland; one can hardly believe one's eyes. (..) To see the colonnade, the church, and, above all, the dome, first outlined in fire and, after an hour, become one glowing mass, is a unique and glorious experience. When one thinks that, at this moment, the whole enormous building is a mere scaffolding for the lights, one realizes that nothing like it could be seen anywhere else in the world.
J. W. Goethe - June 30, 1787 - translation by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer - Collins
.. but, when the night came on, without a cloud to dim the full moon, what a sight it was to see the Great Square full once more, and the whole church, from the cross to the ground, lighted with innumerable lanterns, tracing out the architecture, and winking and shining all round the colonnade of the piazza! And what a sense of exultation, joy, delight, it was when the great bell struck half-past seven - on the instant - to behold one bright red mass of fire, soar gallantly from the top of the cupola to the extremest summit of the cross, and the moment it leaped into its place, become the signal of a bursting out of countless lights, as great, and red, and blazing as itself, from every part of the gigantic church; so that every cornice, capital, and smallest ornament of stone, expressed itself in fire: and the black solid groundwork of the enormous dome seemed to grow transparent as an egg-shell!
C. Dickens - Easter Sunday 1845
Statues at the top of the façade. They portray Jesus with St. John the Baptist and the Apostles without St. Peter (you may wish to see more statues close to Heaven)
It wasn't done in a day is a page providing more information on the construction and decoration of the basilica with particular reference to the popes who promoted them.
You may wish to read Lord Byron's verses dedicated to S. Pietro.
Late XVIth century section of Palazzo Apostolico
Towards the end of the XVIth century the popes were uncertain about where to place their residence; Pope Sixtus V built a large palace near S. Giovanni in Laterano, but at the same time he carried on with the construction of Palazzo Pontificio al Quirinale and he added a new building to the palace adjoining S. Pietro; eventually the popes decided to live in the Quirinale palace (until 1870 when Pope Pius IX retired to the Vatican).
(left) Logge di Raffaello; (right) the (open) window of the papal apartment from which on Sundays at noon the pope gives a short speech followed by the Angelus and ending with a blessing
The palace was completed by Pope Clement VIII; its western side looks on a large courtyard (Cortile di S. Damaso) which is surrounded by a series of loggias designed by Bramante and completed by Raphael; they were closed with windows in the XIXth century to protect their painted vaults.
The pope lives and works in an apartment on the top floor of the building; it is a relatively modest accommodation consisting of ten rooms; on the second floor the pope receives his guests. Pope Francis has chosen to live in a small apartment at Collegio di S. Marta, but he continues to deliver Sunday speeches from the window of the papal apartment.
Ceiling of Sala dei Santi, a room of Appartamento Borgia
The Appartamenti Borgia are only shown by a special permission, difficult to obtain.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Walks in Rome 1875
The apartments are a suite of rooms which were adapted for personal use by Pope Alexander VI and were decorated by Pinturicchio and a number of his assistants. The themes of the paintings included some pagan myths and suggested that the Borgia had a divine origin. After the death of the Pope in 1503 the rooms were no longer used by his successors. In the XIXth century, because of the subjects of the paintings, papal authorities were not keen on opening the apartment to visitors.
Stanze di Raffaello: The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple by Raphael
Amid the group on the left Pope Julius II is portrayed in his chair of state, attended by his secretaries. One of the bearers in front is Marcantonio Raimondi, the engraver of Raphael's drawings. Another man in this group was secretary of briefs at the papal court. The Pope watches the dramatic events which are depicted in the central and right sections of the fresco, but the chair bearers look on the viewer as if to say to him: Look at what happens to those who try to steal the riches of the Church!
A series of rooms above Appartamento Borgia were decorated by Raphael and his assistants for Popes Julius II and Leo X.
You may wish to see some other images of the decoration of the Raphael and Borgia rooms.
Cappella Sistina seen from the dome of the basilica and behind it a square tower built by Pope Alexander VI
Cappella Sistina seen from the outside has the appearance of a fortification; it was built in 1475-483 by Giovannino de' Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV. It is now the "must see" of Musei Vaticani and it is rarely used for ceremonies which were very impressive.
The music in the Sistine Chapel is unimaginably beautiful, especially the "Miserere" (by Allegri) and the so-called "Improperi" (by Palestrina), that is, the Crucified's reproaches to His people, which are sung on Good Friday. The moment when the Pope (Pius VI) is stripped of his pontifical pomp and steps down from his throne to adore the cross, while all the others stay where they are in silence, until the choir begins - "Populus meus, quid feci tibi" (My people, what I have done you?) - is one of the most beautiful of all these remarkable rites. (..) What most people call effect had none on me: I cannot say that I was personally moved, but I had to admire everything and admit that the Christian traditions have been carried out to perfection. At services in which the Pope takes part, particularly those in the Sistine Chapel, everything in the Catholic ritual which is usually offensive is done with perfect taste and dignity. But this of course, is possible only in a place where for centuries all the arts have been at the disposal of the Church. J. W. Goethe - Good Friday Mass on March 22, 1788 (translation by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer - Collins).
(left) Cappella Sistina seen from Piazza S. Pietro; (centre) a "serliana" window built by Pope Julius II; (insets) the white smoke which announced the election of Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005
Many conclaves (and all those after 1870) took place in this chapel. Fumata nera (black smoke signal) is ordinarily used in Italian to mean a negative decision. The sentence derives from the traditional way the cardinals let the outside world know that a ballot did not lead to the election of the new pope. By converse fumata bianca (white smoke signal) means a positive decision. The ballot-papers after being opened and counted are burnt with such additives to make the smoke black or white and those waiting in Piazza S. Pietro learn from its colour whether they will soon see the new pope or not.
You may wish to see two pages on the papal transition.
Then we entered the Sistine Chapel, which we found bright and cheerful, and with a good light for the pictures. "The Last Judgment" divided our admiration with the paintings on the roof by Michael Angelo. I could only see and wonder. The mental confidence and boldness of the master, and his grandeur of conception, are beyond all expression. J. W. Goethe - November 22, 1786 - translation by Charles Nisbeth.
Detail of the Creation of Adam in the ceiling (1512)
On the 28th we paid a second visit to the Sistine Chapel, and
had the galleries opened, in order that we might obtain a
nearer view of the ceiling. As the galleries are very narrow,
it is only with great difficulty that one forces one's way up
them, by means of the iron balustrades. There is an appearance of danger about it, on which account those who are liable
to get dizzy had better not make the attempt; all the discomfort, however, is fully compensated by the sight of the great
masterpiece of art. And at this moment I am so taken with
Michael Angelo, that after him I have no taste even for nature
herself, especially as I am unable to contemplate her with the
same eye of genius that he did. Oh, that there were only
some means of fixing such paintings in my soul!
J. W. Goethe - November 28, 1786 - translation by Charles Nisbeth.
The Last Supper by Cosimo Rosselli
The upper part of the side walls is decorated by frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Moses on one side and from the life of Christ on the other, so that the old law might be compared with the new one. Pope Sixtus IV clashed with Lorenzo de' Medici and most likely was behind a plot to kill him in 1478. In 1480 the two sides came to an arrangement and Lorenzo, as a gesture of conciliation, sent Florentine painters to Rome to decorate the new chapel. The Last Supper by Rosselli was not highly praised by his contemporaries, but the three "window" paintings in the background (Christ Praying on the Mount of Olives, the Arrest of Christ and the Crucifixion) give it a sense of great modernity because they resemble film stills.
(left) Porta S. Pellegrino in an early XIXth century engraving; (centre) Porta S. Pellegrino (side towards Piazza S. Pietro); (right) coat of arms of Pope Alexander VI
The Vatican was not protected by the walls of Ancient Rome and in 846 the Saracens raided S. Pietro;
Pope Leo IV in 849-852 built walls which surrounded the basilica
and a narrow strip of land between it and Castel Sant'Angelo.
It is uncertain whether there were any gates in these walls when they were initially built; at one point the popes decided to
open a gate which allowed direct access to the Vatican to pilgrims coming from the north through Via Trionfale;
the street leading to the gate became
known as Via del Pellegrino (pilgrim) and eventually the gate itself was named after a church dedicated to St. Pellegrino, a IInd century Roman martyr.
The gate was also known as Porta Viridaria, after the viridarium, the papal garden which once was in the site now occupied by Palazzo Apostolico.
The gate was entirely rebuilt by Pope Alexander VI in 1492 (he rebuilt also Porta Settimiana and Porta Cavalleggeri). With the enlargement of the Vatican walls in the XVIth century, Porta S. Pellegrino lost its purpose and it was replaced by Porta Angelica; in the next century it was hidden by Colonnato del Bernini; today the gate is open only on very special occasions.
(left) SS. Martino e Sebastiano degli Svizzeri and above it the papal apartment; (right) façade with the coat of arms of Pope Pius V
SS. Martino e Sebastiano degli Svizzeri was built by Pope Pius V in 1568 to serve as chapel for the Swiss Guards, whose barracks were located next to Porta S. Pellegrino; the upper part of the church (which is inside the Vatican City State) can be seen from Piazza S. Pietro.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Si dice Vaticana quella Basilica, per il colle Vaticano, che dette il nome similmente alla valle, proveniente, secondo alcuni, da vaticini, che
vi si facevano, o dal vagito puerile, secondo altri. Fu da principio tenuta come infame; ma poi prese tanto credito, che si fecero ivi de' tempj,
de' Circi, Orti, e de' sepolcri di uomini illustri. Ove è la basilica esservi stato il Circo di Cajo, e poi di Nerone, lo prova il divisato obelisco, che
con altri ornamenti era in mezzo al Circo, in cui si faceva spietata carnificina de' Cristiani, come si riferisce anco da Svetonio scrittore gentile.
Onde per onorare il sangue ivi sparso da tanti martiri, e per la sepoltura de' ss. Apostoli Pietro, e Paolo, il gran Costantino Imperatore, rovinando
il detto Circo, vi eresse la Basilica, principiando egli stesso a cavare e portare via la terra, per fare i fondamenti di essa. Terminata poi con
magnificenza la Basilica ai 18. di novembre, fu dal Pontefice s. Silvestro consagrata, e dal Pio Imperatore arricchita di molti tesori, e provveduta
di grosse entrate. Quindi Onorio I. fecevi la porta di argento, e coprilla con tegole di metallo dorato tolte dal tempio di Giove Capitolino, ma
spogliata poi da' Saraceni, Leone IV. rifece la porta con alcuni bassirilievi di argento, e Niccolò III. ornolla poi di mosaici, e molte pitture
fecevi Giotto Fiorentino: ufiziando nel tempio quattro monasteri di Monaci a vicenda tanto di notte, che di giorno.