Tuesday, December 15, 2009

St. Peter's Basilica

I intended to devote day 2 to the Vatican. Despite being the smallest independent country in the World, you could spend days exploring the monuments and museums housed within the walls. My plan seemed to suit the questionable weather outside. Intending to stay dry, I took the #64 bus from Termini to stop just off of Via della Concilliaziono, the main road leading into St. Peter’s Square.

The weather managed to keep most other visitors at bay. When I arrived at the famous colonnade just beyond Piazza Pio XII, there were few tourists in site. I spent some time wandering around the elaborate circular plaza. Some temporary barricades obstructed the view of the central obelisk, but it was an otherwise perfect time to experience the space.

Continuing through the metal detectors, I proceeded in the direction of St. Peter’s Basilica. On the way, I also caught a glimpse of the traditionally attired Swiss Guard devoted to protection of the Pope. They don’t appear to have much to do with the daily tourists though. I was surprised to see that most of the security detail seemed to have city of Rome allegiance. It certainly did not feel like crossing an international border.

I followed the trickle of tourists on toward St. Peter’s Basilica. Surprisingly, we entered right through the front doors. Looking back on the square from the stoop is quite the site. I tried to imagine it packed with people on Easter Sunday or before announcing a new Pope. But the sight of the grand space outside the church could not prepare me for the vast interior.

On the way into the church, visitors first pass through an opulently decorated atrium. Many tourists were snapping photos of the gilded doors. Upon passing through those doors, I was immediately struck by the massive size of the nave. The path to the altar seemed to stretch a mile detailed in intricately patterned marble. Massive columns rose like redwoods to support the high vaulted ceiling. I had been in plenty of cathedrals in my time in Europe, but none could prepare me for the size and spectacle of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The central path through the church was almost too much to take in. I ducked into one of the side aisles where I could appreciate the numerous works of invaluable art. On this day, I decided not to pay for any of the guided tours, preferring just to experience the art for it’s intrinsic and holy value. As series of chapels lined the sides of the nave until opening up at the great transept that forms the traditional cross in the floor plan.

In the center of the transept, the most prominent location within any church, stood a massive stone baldachin. Made of cast bronze, the canopy looked like nothing I’ve seen before in any church. Spiraling columns reach upward to support a sculpted platform protected by four angels at the platform. Later, I learned that this monument was one of the early works commissioned to the famous Roman sculptor, Bernini. According to church tradition, the tomb of St. Peter, the first Pope, rests directly below the baldachin. A staircase leads down to small door decorated with the image of the saint, beyond which lies the crypt.

The structure above is even more impressive. Rising almost 450 ft. (to the top of the cross), the dome of St. Peter’s is the tallest of its kinds. It took almost 150 years of design conception to finally arrive at the structure that completes the space today. Michelangelo and other highly regarded architects of the day, contributed plans for completing the dome inspired by the Pantheon and the dome of Florence’s medieval cathedral. The final result did not match the breadth of either of those domes, but contributed mightily to the vastness of the space below.

I paid the extra 5 euro fee to walk up the 400 or so steps to the exterior viewing platform. For an additional two euro you can take an elevator up for the first 200 steps. Continuing on from there, you walk between the two shells of the dome. As I continued up surrounded by other tourists, passing the occasional person overcome by claustrophobia, I imagined that this might be what purgatory feels like - spiraling upward forever. At times I was able to glimpse uncovered sections of the dome, that might give some indication of the construction. Unfortunately, neither during my visit nor since have I been able to find a comprehensive description of the structure of the dome.


You need not understand the behavior of the dome to appreciate it’s incredible size. And the amazing view from the top speaks for itself. Even despite the overcast sky and gusting winds, I was in awe of the panorama before me. It was fun to pick out the major attractions of the city from this high perch. I also felt like the whole of the Vatican was literally a stone’s throw away. From this vantage, I briefly reminisced my journey to date and considered what was next. Would anything compare with the sight I had already seen?

View more of my Vatican photos on Flickr.
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This work by Ken Maschke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.