It was the first week of January and just after Christmas when I found myself in Rome for a few days. Having only four days to explore one of the historically and architecturally wealthiest cities in the world, I knew immediately that at least one full day would have to be dedicated to Vatican City. And let me tell you – one day is NOT enough to see Vatican city and its many wonders.
The gem of Vatican City
Where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands was once a chariot race stadium, built in the time of the emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (40-65), in the first century of our era. Today, the Basilica remains front and center as soon as you pass through the gates of Vatican City. To say that it is unmissable and impressive only begins to explain it.
Generally accepted legend has it that Saint Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and that this is the location of his last resting place. The stadium, about six hundred yards long, stretched from about the end of the Western Wing of the Colonnade to well beyond the apse of the present basilica. St. Peter’s place of crucifixion is traditionally marked as the left-hand wing of the basilica – the best estimate being where the altar of St. Joseph is today.
On entering Vatican City and approaching the Basilica, you’ll only have a moment or two to drop your jaw and begin taking in the magnitude of the structure standing before you. Within minutes, you will be approached by various uniformed locals, offering paid tours and various services to see the Vatican and all of its sites.
Unfortunately, touring the Vatican independently and without a guide or overpriced tickets is near impossible, unless you have purchased standard tickets well in advance, planned every move, and have hours to stand in lines and wait to enter everything you’d like to see.
I feel we got lucky with one of the people who approached us first. A young lady at the entrance explained how it all works, let us compare prices with other local tour agencies, and recommended what we should absolutely see and what we might want to leave for another day. She then directed us to the offices of the tour agency she represents, tucked away in the backstreets of Vatican City, where we were assured the tour agency is authorized by Vatican City for these tours.
The price wasn’t exactly low-cost, but was well worth it and among the cheapest being offered. Within some 20 minutes, the agency staff gathered a small group of less than 20 of us wandering tourists, assigned an authorized English-speaking guide to the group and we were on the way.
Our tour guide, an extremely well-informed, middle-aged Italian woman with fantastic English and a lovely, heavy Italian accent led us through the best of the best that the Vatican has to offer, skipping lines and arranging quick walk-throughs of the various sites. Even if I hadn’t done my research in advance, our guide had more than enough knowledge to offer.
The mystery of St. Peter’s tomb
A tomb was found below the altar of the basilica, and some human remains, but no one can say for certain if the bones belonged to St. Peter. It is assumed that, at some point after his death, some of St. Pete’s buddies must have taken his body and buried it in the nearest cemetery. At the time, that was somewhere outside and to the right of the stadium. The tomb of Peter is still there, beneath the front of the Papal Altar and about 20 ft below the floor level of the basilica.
Fast forward to 1546, when Michelangelo was tasked with the building of the present Basilica by Pope Paul III. When he died, the construction of the Greek Cross section surrounding the Papal altar and the tomb of Peter had been completed only as far as the top of the drum, the large windows which are under the upturned bowl of the dome.
The bowl itself, changed in shape from the half-rounded shape of Michelangelo’s design to the half oval shape of today, was completed by Della Porta in May 1590. The Pope at the time was Sixtus V.
Pope Paul V, in the beginning of the 17th century, decided that the Greek Cross design was too small. He tasked his new architect, Maderno, to pull down the front wall of Michelangelo’s building and extend the eastern end of the basilica by over 100 yards. Today, the basilica is still considered to be the largest Christian church in the world.
The original basilica was built during Constantine’s era like many others. Construction began in 1506 and was finally finished 120 years later. Various popes, as well as designers worked on the project, each one adding there own ideas to the mix. The end result was what we can see today, a far bigger and grander construction than the original plans show. Making it one of the biggest Christian churches in Europe and possibly the world. Due to numerous changes in its design, various disputes occurred, delaying its construction in 1520.
A walk through history
As I mentioned before, various artists and architects took part in designing this structure. One of the more interesting choices was definitely that Michelangelo himself. Yes, the Michelangelo, even though he was mainly a sculptor and not an architect. Though I my eyes aren’t trained enough to quite put my finger on which details stand out the most, his artistic ‘stamp’ is clearly visible in many ambitious parts of the basilica.
The dome in the structure was a challenge of its own sorts for Bramante, who had only two other domes he could learn from. The Pantheon and another. He used both domes as examples and made a bigger and grander dome.
Myths and legends surround this church like they do many others. What I, as a visitor for that one marvelous day, found to be most interesting and impressive is that undefined but unmistakable feeling of walking through and breathing in the history of a place. And my main conclusion? One day is not enough to take in St. Peter’s Basilica, much less all of Vatican City.