Virtual Tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, 25th March 2021

In company with members from TAS Alton and TAS New Milton, we are in Rome with Stuart Harvey, an accredited Rome guide, about 200 yards from the Basilica. Here, we are still on Italian soil but as we walk further along and into the Piazza we cross over into the Vatican City State.  In front of us is the enormous St Peter’s which at 720 ft long and 490 ft wide is the largest church in the world.  The roof of the Sistine Chapel with its famous chimney is to our right; when the cardinals gather to elect a new pope the smoke from the chimney indicates to the world whether a candidate has been elected – black means no decision yet and white proclaims an elected Pope.  The new Pope is introduced on the central balcony of the Basilica.  Twice a week huge crowds gather to see the Pope, on Wednesdays he sits under a canopy at the top of the Basilica steps before making a progress around the piazza in his Popemobile.  Stuart also points out the window in the top floor of the Apostelic Palace where every Sunday he gives a blessing.

 An aerial view of St.Peter’s gives us a better idea of its size and also the huge Piazza where we are standing into which, according to Stuart, you could fit the whole coliseum and still have room to spare. Back on the ground we admire the four concentric rows of columns forming a colonnade on each side which was built by Bernini for Pope Alexander VII in 1682.  At the centre stands the 3,500 year old Egyptian obelisk, 84 ft plus its base, which was brought to Rome and erected by Emperor Caligula in around 40 AD.

This area, located on the opposite side of the Tiber river to the heart of Rome, was known as the Vaticanus Hill by the Romans in the 5 to 6 Century BC, so the present name has no Christian context. But it was here that St. Peter was crucified and buried by Emperor Nero as a punishment for Christians who he thought were responsible for the fire that engulfed Rome.  Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity 250 years later in 313AD and the first church was built.  The Romans had no format for churches, having only had temples, so they adapted the style of their basilicas which were commercial or administrative centres. The existing St. Peter’s was started on the same site in the early part of the 16C and Michelango was eventually put in charge of the building but died before it was completed 100 years later in 1612. It then took a further 100 years to finish the interior decoration, which was completed by Bernini in the Baroque style.

As we walk up the steps into the porch of St. Peter’s, we see 5 entry doors and Stuart draws our attention to the small one on the far right known as the Holy Door.  This is only opened every 25 years for the jubilee pilgrimage and afterwards it is walled up on the inside.  When the next pilgrimage is due the Pope knocks out the first brick himself to commence the removal of the wall.

Entering the Basilica the sheer beauty, splendour and enormity take your breath away.  The side arches are 100ft tall and the nave is 155 ft high. The floor throughout is polished carerra marble and all the decorations are mosaics which explains why it took 100 years to decorate. There are small chapels to the side of the nave; the first one we pass contains Michelangelo’s La Pieta, the Virgin Mary with the adult Jesus draped across her lap. He created this in marble when he was only 22 years old and it is the only work he signed, on a sash across Mary’s front. It has survived a trip to New York for the World Fair in the 1960’s and was attacked and damaged in situ in 1972, so now it is encased in bullet proof glass. Further along there is a monument to Pope Gregory XIII who brought in the Gregorian calendar in 1582. At the time this was not accepted by northern European Protestants and it was two centuries before the UK finally adopted this.

A small statue of St. Peter mounted under a canopy is 800 yrs old.  Revered as the first Pope, the pilgrim tradition of  rubbing his feet have worn away his toes. The magnificent bronze and gold altar canopy is by Bernini and incorporates some of the original pillar design from the first church built on the site. The altar, a solid block of carrera marble, was where the Popes were crowned until Pope Paul VI decided to end the custom and sold the crown to a consortium of Americans – it now resides in Washington D.C.

The magnificent dome, 450ft high is overwhelmingly beautiful, the images covering it being made entirely of mosaics.  It is supported by 4 enormous pillars, each one 225ft in diameter.

Raphael’s last painting of the Transfiguration was scaled up larger and made entirely of mosaics. Even in close up, it is almost indistinguishable from painting.  No wonder it took 12 years to make.

A memorial to the Royal Stuarts (of England and Scotland) was made in the early 1800’s by Canova and mentions James III (who of course never ever ruled) and Bonny Prince Charlie, who was born and lived most of his life in Rome. As he never had any children, the carvings of the weeping angels denote the end of the Stuart line.

Just before we leave the Basilica we see the font carved in porphyry, a purple stone found in southern Egypt and Sudan, the lid of which commemorates Emperor Hadrian.  A large porphyry disc on the floor nearby was where Charlemagne was crowned in 43 AD.

As we leave, we see a group of the Swiss Guards wearing outfits in yellow, blue and red, in a Renaissance style but designed in 1918.  The guards were established in 1506 to give protection to the Pope and Vatican, the Swiss being the most effective mercenaries of the day.

We can’t thank Stuart enough for such an outstanding and memorable tour.

Wendy Allan