Visiting the Vatican - What to See and Do

St Peter’s Basilica

Places to see 0 2260
St Peters Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica is the centre of the Christian World, the world’s largest church and an architectural work designed by top Italian artists of an era. It was built on the Vatican Hill, across the River Tiber in a symbolic location: it was the place where the apostle St. Peter, considered the first head of the Church, died as a martyr and was buried.

HISTORY

The first construction held on site was the initiative of Emperor Constantine  in the fourth century. That first basilica was a smaller version of the current one, which over the centuries suffered vicissitudes almost to end up in ruins and abandoned.

It was Pope Nicholas V,  in the middle of the fifteenth century, who ordered the restoration and expansion of the Basilica to the architect Bernardo Rossellino. But his death caused the works to stop.

The revolution came half a century later with Julius II  who asked Bramante to create a new conception of the Basilica. Finally, a structure with Greek floor and a huge dome was made.

Later architects left their mark, highlighting the dome designed by Michelangelo and completed by Giacomo della Porta. Carlo Maderno extended the building with a Latin cross design and completed the façade we see today. The church was consecrated again in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII, just 1300 years after the consecration of the primitive temple.

View from St Peter’s Square

You will be enchanted one you arrive to the square and are able to see the magnificent Basilica, although many think it is not perfect. Expanding Maderno partly hid the dome of St. Peter.

The façade, 45 meters high and designed by Maderno, altered the conception of Michaelangelo and involved the expansion of the structure and the inclusion of embedded columns.  It is crowned by huge statues of Christ, John the Baptist and the Apostles. The clock and bells are outstanding elements of the façade.

INDOORS

Once you walk in there is a lot to see. The first thing you notice is the grandeur of the space, of more than 15,000 m2 and able to hold 60,000 people.

The interior space is divided into three naves  separated by large pillars (the central nave, the nave of the Epistle and the Gospel nave) and four major elements: Ambulatory, Dome, Presbytery and the Papal Altar.

You can choose to climb the dome or walk inside and visit some of the most interesting points:

Central Nave

The Central Nave is very wide with a surface of 10.000 m2 with very interesting mosaics and marble from the former basilica.

In the arches of the nave there are sculptures that represent the virtues: In the pillars on the left, starting with the door, ecclesiastical authority, divine justice, virginity, obedience, humility, patience, justice and fortitude. On the right, starting from the altar, charity, faith, innocence, peace, forgiveness, perseverance, mercy and strength.

In the pillars we see the sculptures of the 39 founding saints.

Nave of the Epistle

It is the nave located on the right.

It is fundamental to visit the first chapel that houses the impressive Pieta by Michelangelo, a masterpiece of his youth. It is protected by a transparent box because of damage sustained in attacks in the past.

As we go forward through the nave we find a chapel with burial monuments, including the tomb of John Paul II   after a marble slab with the inscription “BEATVS IOANNES Pavlvs PP. II

You should also look for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and its door, designed by Francesco Borromini. In this chapel we find the Blessed Sacrament.

The Gospel Nave

It is the nave to the left. It has numerous chapels, rich in artistic elements and tombs of Popes and other prominent figures of the Church.

We especially recommend stopping in the Choir Chapel, led by the Altar of the Immaculate Conception.

Ambulatory

The Ambulatory is the Circular space around the four pillars supporting the dome

In the pillar that corresponds to the ship of the epistle we find the tomb of John XXIII.

Dome

The basilica dome rises to a total height of 136,57 m from the ground to the top of the outer cross. It is the highest dome in the world. Its internal diameter is 41,47 m, slightly less than two of the three huge domes that preceded it: the Pantheon, 43.3 m; and the Cathedral of Florence, 44 m.

It is very interesting to see the dome from above: we have a section on going up to the dome of St. Peter.

Presbytery

In this area admiring the Chair of St. Peter, an impressive Bernini reliquary containing an early Christian chair resting on sculptures of the four Fathers of the Church. Governing all a window with a dove  symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

Papal Altar

It is on the transept, under the dome and highlights the monumental canopy of San Pedro de Bernini, an impressive Baroque work.

It is made of bronze from the Roman Pantheon and has a height of 30 m, raised by four twisted columns.

In the centre, by the shade of the canopy, surrounded by the huge space under the dome is the papal altar, a cuboid block of white marble, and over it a bronze crucifix and a set of seven candlesticks in which only the pope can celebrate the Eucharist on solemn occasions.

It was placed vertically over the tomb of St. Peter.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION AND ADVICE

– Admission is free. Inside, there are optional paid tours such as the dome or the treasure.

– The Basilica opens daily from 7-19 hours (April to September) and from 7-18 (October to March).

– There is usually a line of people to get in but it runs faster than in the Vatican Museums. If you hire a guided tour to the Vatican Museums you can access the Basilica by a special entry without queueing. So if you hire a tour of this type go first to the Museums and leave the Basilica for later.

Go early to avoid queueing. Queues start at about 10.

– The dress code is very strict: no bare shoulders, shorts or short skirts. There are sellers around offering economical clothes in case of emergency.

–  Security is high. There are internal control accesses and surveillance. Any disrespectful behaviour causes reprimands.

– Once you pass the security check before going up the steps that allow access to the Basilica there is a visitor centre with cloakroom  for suitcases,  public toilets  and rental of audio guides.

Related links

Visits to the dome of St. Peter’s
Gardens of Vatican City
Vatican necropolis

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