Among the largest churches in the world and with priceless masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s Pietà, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican dominates the square of the same name with its imposing blue-silver dome. Embracing the square is Bernini’s Colonnade which constitutes the solemn entrance to the Vatican and the heart of Christianity.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest of the four papal basilicas in Rome (besides St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major), and the centre of world Catholicism. In fact, it is also a Pontifical Chapel where the main events of Catholic worship are celebrated: these include Christmas and Easter services, the rites of Holy Week, the proclamations and funerals of the Popes, the opening and closing of Jubilees and the canonizations of the new Saints. The basilica also hosted the sessions of Vatican Council I with Pope Pius IX and Vatican Council II with John XXIII and Paul VI.
The construction of the present basilica began under the pontificate of Julius II in 1506, in the midst of the Renaissance, and the project for a colossal building with a central plan was entrusted to Donato Bramante. At his death Raffaello and Antonio da Sangallo were also involved, working on a Latin cross plan. After them, Michelangelo Buonarroti took over the direction of the works and returned to the original project with a central plan, but then the work was interrupted again. At the beginning of the 17th century, the building site reopened and work was carried out on a Latin cross plan that would have guaranteed a greater capacity of the faithful. After the completion of the imposing façade by Carlo Maderno, surmounted by thirteen statues, in 1626 the church was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII. Let’s not forget that in the same place on which today’s basilica was founded another one dating back to the 4th century, next to a necropolis: and it is there that during a long campaign of excavations the remains of St. Peter’s body (buried in that very place between 64 and 68 A.D.) would have been found.
Among the masterpieces that deserve a visit, inside and outside the basilica, the colossal Baldacchino di San Pietro in bronze made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1624-1633), who also designed the square in front of it with the Colonnade; the famous marble group of Michelangelo’s Pietà (first chapel on the right); the Holy Door, the last on the right; the 18th-century Sacristy; various tombs and funerary monuments by Bernini, Canova, Pollaiolo and Thorvaldsen; the Dome designed by Michelangelo; the Vatican Grottoes where many Pontiffs are buried. Then, near the basilica, the Sistine Chapel (1475-1481), where you can admire the decoration of the vault and the back wall with the famous Last Judgement painted by Michelangelo, and the Vatican Museums with Raphael’s Rooms.