It’s the world’s largest Basilica of Christianity, nested into the heart of the Vatican city, with its 186 metres of length (218 if we consider the porch too), a height of 46 metres in the central aisle, a main dome 136 metre high and 42 metres large in diameter. The huge façade is 114 metres wide and 47 metres high. It has a surface of 22000 square metres and twenty thousand persons can pray in it.
The indigenous St Peter’s Basilica, nowadays forgotten, was constructed by will of Emperor Constantine around 320 AD in the area where Saint Peter had been martyrized (together with other Christians) close to the circus of Nero that, in fact, rose in the vicinity. For about thousand years the Basilica grew and got enriched, but it was also theatre of pillage in the barbarian hordes.
The first repair and enlargement intervention was ordered in the middle of the 15th century by pope Niccolo V, who entrusted Leon Battista Alberti and his helper Bernardo Rossellino. Later pope Giulio II charged Bramante who in 1506 demolished the old Saint Peter’s Basilica planning a new one with a Greek cross plan. But at the time of the death of both pope and architect only the central pillars had been constructed.
Rafael (with the contribution of experts such as Fra Giocondo and Giuliano Da Sangallo) took over the guidance of the works, and proposed a Latin cross plan. Rafael was succeeded by Baldassarre Peruzzi first and Michelangelo later, who instead chose a return to the Greek cross. After the death of all contenders, pope Paolo V imposed the Latin cross structure, which was realized by Maderno who took care as well of the façade as we see it today.
The St Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 1626.
The plan of the dome belongs to Michelangelo who managed to finish only the portion of the dome basement called Tamburo. It will be Giacomo Dalla Porta to complete the dome according to Michelangelo’s drawings in 1588-89. The positioning of most of the interior furnishing of the Basilica was assigned to Bernini by his untiring pope Urbano VIII Barberini.
Bernini worked in the St Peter’s Basilica for twenty years. We owe this artist the arrangement of the St Peter’s square in front of the Basilica as well (1656-1667). Inside the Basilica are numerous and priceless art pieces kept in the forty five altars and eleven chapels. There are about ten thousand square metres of mosaics, Michelangelo’s Pieta, the papal canopy and the monument to Urbano VIII both by Bernini, the monument to Cristina of Sweden by Carlo Fontana, the monument to the countess Matilda by Canossa (under drawing of Bernini), only to quote some of the most important pieces.
Opening time of the basilica:
from 7:00 to 18:00 every day (until 19:00 during winter), except on Wednesdays (if there is the papal audience the Basilica remains closed until 12:00). Entrance is free. It’s also possible to visit the dome (from October to March every day from 8:00 to 16:45, until 17:45 from April to September); entrance is charged.
How to get to Saint Peter’s Basilica:
the most comfortable public transport is the metro (line A – stop: Ottaviano)