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 (Colonnade). 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 (above) and in April 2021 (below)
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
On the 17th November 1644: On each side of this portico, are two campaniles, or towers, whereof there was but one perfected, of admirable art.
John Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence
A project for the bell towers 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 locations 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. See a larger view of the northern clock with the heraldic symbols of Pope Pius VI. A clock with the Italian Hour can still be seen in the rear façade of the basilica.
"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.
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.
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 the first appearance of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005).
The access to the basilica is preceded by a large portico decorated with the eagles and dragons of Pope Paul V and with stuccoes depicting scenes of the life of St. Peter. The inscription containing the epitaph dedicated by Emperor Charlemagne to Pope Adrian 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.
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 the Stefaneschi Altarpiece by Giotto in the Vatican Museums, a mosaic at Cappella Simoncelli at Boville, another mosaic at S. Maria in Cosmedin, a relief at S. Balbina and even a brick at S. Maria Maggiore in Ravenna.
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).
The Bark of Giotto in Mosaick is over the Pillars, and in the inside of the "Portico" so
that 'tis seen at a great height as you come out
of the Church to go into the Piazza: 'Tis very Beautiful, and. much better Coloured than I
imagined: The Fisherman is the Best Figure,
and is really fine.
Jonathan and Jonathan Richardson - Account of Some of the Statues, etc. in Italy - 1722
Over the principal entrance into the atrium, and opposite the great entrance to the church, is seen affixed to the wall on high the famous Navicella of Giotto, representing the Apostles overtaken at sea by the storm, admirably executed in mosaic. (..) Giotto received the commission for its execution from Card. Stefaneschi.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1844.
The ship is a metaphor for the Church of Rome, because the Bishop of Rome is the successor of St. Peter who walks above the water to reach the hand of Christ. The original mosaic was placed in the atrium of the old basilica and it was much larger and it had a rectangular shape. Most of it was lost when it was dismantled; it was reconstructed in 1675 and only some fragments are original. According to Vasari, Giotto portrayed himself in the fisherman at the left corner of the mosaic.
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.
Musei Vaticani: (above) sarcophagus with reliefs depicting episodes of the life of Jonah which was found during the construction of the new basilica; (below) detail of another sarcophagus showing the same subject which was found in 1841 during the construction of the railway behind the basilica
A number of fine Christian sarcophagi came to light during the construction of the new basilica (see also that of Junius Bassus) and afterwards. The depiction of episodes from the life of Jonah was particularly popular among the early Christians (see a large floor mosaic at Aquileia). Jonah coming out uninjured from the belly of a sea monster was a clear symbol of Resurrection. Excavations carried out beneath the basilica in the 1940s led to the discovery of a small necropolis resembling that at Porto.
St Peter's seldom answers expectation at first entering it, but
enlarges itself on all sides insensibly, and
mends upon the eye every moment. The proportions are so very well observed, that nothing appears to an advantage, or distinguishes itself above the rest. It seems neither extremely high, nor long, nor broad,
because it is all of them in a just equality.
Joseph Addison - Remarks on several parts of Italy, in the years 1701, 1702, 1703
There is nothing, I believe, in this famous structure, so worthy of applause, as the admirable symmetry and proportion of its parts. Notwithstanding all the carving, gilding, basso relievos, medallions, urns, statues, columns, and pictures with which it abounds, it does not, on the whole, appear over-crowded with ornaments.
Tobias Smollett - Travels through France and Italy - 1766
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.
Henry James - Italian Hours. You may wish to read more of his account of a visit to S. Pietro in 1873.
November 22, 1786. 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 - 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 an enlargement of the mosaic of the right pillar.
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.
(left) The Baldachin and the Octagon; (right) aedicule in a pillar of the Octagon with columns from S. Pietro Vecchio which according to tradition came from the Temple of Solomon; twisted columns similar to those of the Baldachin can be seen in many later churches, e.g. at Palazzolo in Sicily
Under the cupola, and in the centre of the church, stands the high altar (..) with that stupendous canopy of Corinthian brass, which heretofore was brought from the Pantheon; it consists of four wreathed columns, partly channelled and encircled with vines, on which hang little puti, birds and bees (the arms of the Barberini), sustaining a baldacchina, of the same metal. The four columns weigh an hundred and ten thousand pounds, all over richly gilt; this, with the pedestals, crown, and statues about it, form a thing of that art, vastness, and magnificence, as is beyond all that man's industry has produced of the kind; it is the work of Bernini, a Florentine sculptor, architect, painter, and poet, who, a little before my coming to the city, gave a public opera (for so they call shows of that kind), wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy, and built the theatre. Evelyn
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.
Mark Twain - The Innocents Abroad. You may wish to read his account of a visit to S. Pietro in 1867.
The Baldacchino gave Bernini his first and at once greatest opportunity of displaying his unparalleled genius for combining an architectural structure with monumental sculpture. It was a brilliant idea to repeat in the giant columns of the Baldacchino the shape of the late antique twisted columns which - sanctified by age and their use in the old Basilica of St Peter's - were now to serve as aedicules above the balconies of the pillars of the dome. Thus the twisted bronze columns of the Baldacchino find a fourfold echo, and not only give proof of the continuity of tradition, but by their giant size also express symbolicly the change from the simplicity of the early Christians to the splendour of the counter-reformatory Church, implying the victory of Christianity over the pagan world. Moreover, their shape helped to solve the formal problem inherent in the gigantic Baldacchino. Its size is carefully related to the architecture of the church; but instead of creating a dangerous rivalry, the dark bronze corkscrew columns establish a dramatic contrast to the straight fluted pilasters of the piers as well as to the other white marble structural members of the building.
Rudolph Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy - 1600-1750 - Penguin Books 1958
Detail of the Baldachin (see how it influenced the design of Vermahlungsbrunnen in Vienna)
The columns are topped by four large angels behind which rise the huge scrolls of the crowning motif. Their S-shaped lines appear like a buoyant continuation of the screw-like upward tendencies of the columns.
The scrolls meet under a vigorously curved entablature which is surmounted by the
Cross above the golden orb. (..) Here, in the open spaces between the
scrolls, are the putti with the symbols of papal power, here are the energetically curved
palm branches which give tension to the movement of the scrolls. (..) Critics have often disapproved of the realistic hangings which join the
columns instead of the traditional entablature. But it is precisely this unorthodox element which gives the Baldacchino its particular meaning as a monumental canopy
raised in all eternity over the tomb of St. Peter, reminiscent of the real canopy held over
the living pope when he is carried in state through the basilica. Wittkower
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 inside the basilica.
The altar of St. Peter's choir, notwithstanding all the ornaments which have been lavished upon it, is no more than a heap of puerile finery, better adapted to an Indian pagod, than to a temple built upon the principles of the Greek architecture. Smollet
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
The Cathedra of St. Peter in the apse of the basilica, (is) Bernini's most complex and, due to its place and symbolic import, most significant work. (..) We noted before how the whole was conceived like a picturesque fata morgana to be seen from a distance through the columns of the Baldacchino. Only from a near standpoint is it possible to discern the subtle interplay of multicoloured marble, gilt bronze, and stucco, all bathed in the yellow light spreading from the centre of the angelic Glory. Wittkower
No differentiation into species is possible: the window as well as the transitions from flat to full relief and then to firee-standing figures penetrating far into space make up an indivisible whole. The beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he feels magically drawn into the orbit of the work. What is image, what is reality? The very borderline between the one and the other seems to be obliterated. And yet, in spite of the vast scale and spatial extension, the composition is most carefully arranged and balanced. The colour scheme lightens progressively from the marble pedestals to the bronze throne with gilt decorations and the golden angels of the Glory. The gilded rays spread their protecting fingers over the whole width of the work and enhance, at the same time, the visual concentration on the symbolic focus, the area of the throne. Wittkower
(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
Near the Confession of S. Peter is an old brazen Statue of S. Peter sitting with his hand up as giving his blessing; and holding his right foot
a little out, to be kissed. At first, some wonder
to see devout People flocking thither, and kissing the Foot of that Statue, and putting their Heads
under that Foot, when they have done; but
when they are well informed, that all this is done only to testify, that they submit themselves to the Authority which was given by our Saviour, to S. Peter and his Successors, they rest satisfied.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
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.
I was not at all pleased with the famous statue of the dead Christ in his mother's lap, by Michael Angelo. The figure of Christ is as much emaciated, as if he had died of a consumption: besides, there is something indelicate, not to say indecent, in the attitude and design of a man's body, stark naked, lying upon the knees of a woman. Smollet
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
There is also a great number of tombs of popes, cardinals, and other persons of distinction, most beautifully ornamented. (..) But, for a more particular description of this church, the traveller who delights in painting and architecture, may consult an excellent book, called 'the Tempio Vaticano' writ by cavalier Fontana; or he may buy for three Julio's, near Piazza Navona, a plan of the church, where he will find the names of the painters and architects employed in this magnificent edifice.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
You may wish to see some funerary monuments to kings and queens.
(left) The "village" on the roof of the main nave, the main dome and the dome of Cappella Clementina (you may wish to see the heraldic symbols of Pope Sixtus V on the drum and the dome); (right) supports for the illumination of the dome and Zecca (Mint) in the background
On the summit of this is fixed a brazen globe gilt, capable of receiving thirty-five persons. This I entered, and engraved my name amongst other travellers. (..) On the battlements of the church, also all overlaid with lead and marble, you would imagine yourself in a town, so many are the cupolas, pinnacles, towers, juttings, and not a few houses inhabited by men who dwell there, and have enough to do to look after the vast reparations which continually employ them. Evelyn
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
Though every thing in this church is admirable, the most astonishing part of it is the cupola. Upon my going to the top of it, I was surprised to find that the dome, which we see in the church, is not the same that one looks upon without doors, the last of them being a kind of case to the other, and the stairs lying betwixt them both, by which one ascends into the ball. Had there been only the outward dome, it would not have shown itself to an advantage to those that are in the church; or had there only been the inward one, it
would scarce have been seen by those that are without; had they both been one solid dome of so great a thickness, the pillars would have been too weak to have supported it. Addison
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! Dickens - Easter Sunday 1845
Read George Stillman Hillard's 1848 account of the illumination of the dome.
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.
Brussels Art & History Museum: one of the many ancient sarcophagi which were found during the excavations for the construction of the new basilica; it most likely was originally utilized at Ostia
Move to page two.
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.