This Renaissance structure located in the Vatican City west of the River Tiber and near the Janiculum Hill with its central dome dominates the skyline of Rome. The basilica is approached via St Peter’s Square, a forecourt in two sections, both surrounded by tall colonnades. The façade of the basilica, with giant order of columns, stretches across the end of the square and approached by steps on which stand two 18 ft statues of the 1st century apostles to Rome, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The façade designed by Maderno is 376 ft wide and 149 ft high and is built of travertine stone with giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by thirteen statues – Christ flanked by eleven Apostles (except St Peter, whose statue is left of the stairs) and John the Baptist. The inscription below the cornice on the 1 meter tall frieze reads as follows:
IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII
(In honor of the Prince of Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate).
The entire interior of St. Peter’s is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. The basilica contains a large number of tombs of popes and other notable people, many of which are considered outstanding artworks. There are also a number of sculptures in niches and chapels, including Michelangelo’s Pieta.
It was designed by the greatest architects of the day, including Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The basilica is the burial site of St Peter and there has been a church on this site since the time of Constantine. Construction of the present basilica, replacing the old St Peter’s Basilica of the 4th century AD, began in 1506 and was completed in in 1626. On its completion the structure was beyond impressive. See the below remark by the American philosopher, Emerson:
“I love St Peter’s church. It grieves me to think that after a few days I shall see it no more. It has a peculiar smell from the quantity of incense burned in it. The music that is heard in it is always good and the eye is always charmed. It is an ornament of the earth… the sublime of the beautiful.”
– RALPH WALDO EMERSON, Journals, April 7, 1833.
To the east of the basilica is the Piazza di San Pietro (St Peter’s Square). It was constructed between 1656 and 1667 and designed by Bernini. The Egyptian obelisk which was known as “The Witness” is placed in the center. The obelisk’s height is 84 ft and the total height including the base and the cross on the top is 130 ft. This obelisk was originally raised in the Forum Lulium in Alexandria on the orders of Augustus around 30-25-28 BC. It was brought to Rome by Caligula and erected at the Circus Nero in 37 AD where it thought to have stood witness to the crucifixion of St Peter. Finally it was moved to its present location by the orders of Pope Sixtus V on 28 September 1586.
The Pontifical Swiss Guard are responsible for the safety of the Pope and the Apostolic Palace. The Swiss Guard serves as the defacto military of Vatican City. The Pontifical Swiss Guard has its origins in the 15th century. Pope Sixtus IV has made an alliance with the Swiss Confederation and built barracks in Via Pellegrino after foreseeing the possibility of recruiting Swiss mercenaries. The official dress uniform is of blue, red, orange and yellow with distinctly Renaissance appearance.