St. Peter’s Basilica is a gigantic place! It’s the Ultrasaurus of cathedrals! It covers 6 acres, and 2 football fields would fit in the central nave. It was designed and decorated by masters from both the Renaissance and Baroque eras. (It took 120 years to complete the project) The huge, Michaelangelo-designed dome rises 448 feet from the ground, with Bernini’s 7-story bronze canopy surrounding the altar underneath, and Raphael’s “paintings” (actually mosaic copies of them) adorn the walls. The large canopy (looks like a giant 4-poster bed–but a stunning one at that) is said to reduce the perceived height of the dome and make it feel more “intimate”. I found it hard to feel any intimacy in such a cavernous space, but it is jaw-droppingly ornate and beautiful.
Built over Old St. Peter’s church (AD 326) and the tomb of the apostle Peter, the cathedral is a spectacular monument to Christendom and the Catholic Church, in spite of the shady origins of the money used to build it. (The church sold “indulgences” to wealthy parishioners. In other words, money for forgiveness of sins) It is the largest church in the world, with a capacity of 60,000 (standing) worshipers. The day we were there, luckily, it was not crowded. However, because it was Easter week and hundreds of chairs were set up for the pope’s Easter mass, we were not able to explore parts of the cathedral normally open to the public. Bummer!
We were still able to see the grandeur of the place–the marble floors, the Bernini dove window, the bronze carvings and statues, gold trim, corkscrew columns (salvaged from Old St. Peter’s church and said to have been originally pillaged from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem), marble columns, and richness and splendor everywhere. In the late afternoon, beams of light shone through the windows, giving the place a feeling of reverence, which seemed to me to override the muted noise of many tourists.
My favorite thing in the church, though, was hands down, Michaelangelo’s exquisite sculpture, “The Pieta”. It’s behind bulletproof glass, sadly, thanks to some crazy guy who took a hammer to it in 1972, so you can’t get very close. You can still see Mary’s sad, tender expression as she holds on her lap the heavy, dead body of her son, Jesus Christ. It’s amazing to me that a sculptor can convey through stone, the emotion of such a poignant moment in Mary’s life, and at the same time sculpt folds of cloth, the human body, and strands of hair that appear soft and supple. Of all of Michaelangelo’s sculptures, I think this one is his best.
St. Peter’s Basilica has a strictly enforced dress code, so be sure no one is wearing, shorts, mini-skirts or bare shoulders (not even your children!)
One thing you can do at St. Peter’s Basilica, which we didn’t do, but I wish we had, is climb the dome. It costs €5 to climb the stairs to the top of the dome, or €7 to take an elevator to the roof of the church, where you can continue to the top of the dome by climbing the 323 remaining steps. From the bottom of the dome, you can even go inside the church and look down on the altar below. From outside, the view of Rome is said to be fantastic from either here or the top of the dome.