After dinner, the tour group returned to Vatican City to see arguably the most famous church in all of Christendom. Huge throngs of people were already flooding St. Peter’s Square.
Burial site for its namesake and numerous popes as well as papal basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a destination for the Catholic faithful but tourists from all over the world. It is one of the largest churches in the world, spreading over almost 6 acres. Like many other holy sites the world over, which includes many cultures and civilizations throughout history, it is built on top of another holy site, in this case, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine. It is also to be admired artistically. Some of the greatest names of the Renaissance were involved in its construction: Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante (the architect). Its very splendor and opulence probably lend fuel to the fires of those who find its excesses overwrought. But, it is undeniably a monumental achievement in architecture, art and religious conviction.
The dome, the tallest in the world, is a technical achievement, influenced by the dome designs of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral. Several architects, including Michelangelo, passed away before the dome was completed. Superficially, it looks like the Pantheon’s, the representational “coffering” being instead paintings of 96 Biblical and papal figures, 16 in each of 6 ascending tiers. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was built oval in shape to reduce compressional forces. There are also 16 windows ringing the dome at the base that provide illumination that on sunny days appears as crepuscular rays. The dome sits on a cylindrical wall, like the Pantheon’s, but which is itself mounted on four massive pillars, connected by spandrels on which each of the four evangelists, Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, is painted, to give an overall impression of stupendous height.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is also in the basilica, housed in a glass case. He was an unknown sculptor, aged 24, when he completed it from a single piece of marble.
The great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for some of the basilica’s greatest treasures, created well after the basilica was built. His first commission resulted in the canopy (baldachin) that lies over St. Peter’s tomb and directly below the apex of the dome, possibly the largest work of bronze in the world. The layout of the piazza is entirely his design. It is flanked on two sides by colonnades of two pairs of columns, also his design, topped by statues of 140 saints. The piazza oddly has an Egyptian obelisk in the center, brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.
We wound up spending two hours wandering through this massive edifice. The basilica is breathtaking in its scale and elicits both awe and disquiet.