It’s where Catholicism’s most important ceremonies take place and the goal of pilgrims, artists, scholars and the simply curious, coming from every corner of the world. Some of the greatest artists of all time had a role in its design and construction, and its name commemorates the first pope of the Catholic Church, St Peter, who is buried beneath it.
Christian tradition has it that Jesus entrusted the apostle Peter with the task of creating something to spread the word of God. This turned him into one of Christianity’s most important figures, and at the same time into one of the main enemies of the Roman Empire. And so, as part of the emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians, Peter was crucified and then buried on the Vatican Hill.
Around 320 AD Constantine the Great, a key figure in permitting Christianity to flourish in the Roman Empire, decided to build the first basilica in honour of the apostle.
Unfortunately, after a thousand years the building had fallen into a state of irresistible decay, and so the then pope, Julius II, decided to replace it with a new and greater one and commissioned Donato Bramante to design it.
Work began immediately and the first stone was laid in 1506. More than a dozen eminent architects followed, including Raphael and Michelangelo (who designed the impressive dome): they worked to enrich, modify and at times overthrow the work of their predecessors.
The basilica was consecrated in 1626, by pope Urban VIII, but was not finished until Gian Lorenzo Bernini provided the splendid colonnades of St Peter’s Square and much of the basilica’s internal decoration, including the famous baldachin.
The most suitable word used to describe the solemn sensations experienced when entering the basilica is ‘epic’, and not only because of the dome’s height of 133 metres or the surface area of 21,000 square metres; but because each centimetre is adorned with artworks of all kinds, produced by some of history’s greatest artists, first and foremost of these masterpieces is Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Rome, September 2017